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Volume 15, Issue 40 ~ October 4 - October 10, 2007


Hunting Hope for Oysters on Troubled Reefs

We tell the seasons by the movements of creatures. Cubans are setting their seasonal clocks by the arrival of our ospreys.

On Oct. 1, the alarm clock rang for Chesapeake Bay watermen, who began waking oysters that had been sleeping all summer in their beds.

Throughout Chesapeake Country, roasts and festivals long on the calendar are awaiting the arrival of the main fare: the first oyster harvests of 2007.

Early reports suggest that we’d be better off ordering oysters from farmers who plant and harvest all year rather than depending on the bounty of mother nature to provide from the wild — and for our watermen.

In Virginia, the Marine Resources Commission said that a lot of oystermen are disappointed. There was anticipation when this new season dawned after the commission reopened the lower Rappahannock River to oystering after closing it a decade ago. Raising oysters in sanctuaries, where their enemies are disease and rays, not oystermen, is one of the many ways wildlife planners struggle to keep the species with us. Occasionally, those sanctuaries are opened and watermen invited in to harvest mature oysters. If it works, it’s a way of gaining the oysters’ good work — water filtration over the couple of years they grow fat and mature — and extend our watermen’s lease on their time-tested occupation.

But according to early reports, oystermen didn’t have much to celebrate. Season-opening Rappahannock catches are light.

Season in and season out, wildlife planners are scratching their heads to find ways to beat the odds against oysters. Making new reefs — out of empty oyster shell and lots of more imaginative materials, from old bridges to human cremains — is another standard way. Maryland had its own disappointment over the summer, when a concrete reef in Sillery Bay near Gibson Island had to be removed because it had been so badly constructed and placed that it became a danger to boating.

Disappointments large and small are nothing new in oyster seasons. Failure comes in many and amazing forms. If rays don’t eat the newly planted spat, disease will — or so it seems. So far, nature is wilier than our scientists are wise. When University of Maryland scientists put an experimental cage of Asian oysters — supposedly sterile — into the Severn River, 100 or so turned up missing after a boat anchor landed on them.

For all our good intentions and thoughtful plans, about the best we’ve done is stick a finger in the dike. On the other side, oyster disaster is like a wall of water bearing down on us, ready to break through.

It’s oyster season on Chesapeake Bay, but what the season will bring us, nobody yet knows.

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