Volume 16, Issue 40 - October 2 - October 8, 2008

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Letter From the Editor

The Parable of the Oysters

Sound familiar?

A thriving industry, the foundation of an economy, goes bottoms up. The tsunami of words that follows might have been shot forth by the prehistoric crater that helped dig Chesapeake Bay. Everybody knows what went wrong: growth, greed and indifference to picking up after ourselves. But nobody dares point the finger of blame. Tons of tax dollars, our dollars, are sunk on wide-ranging recovery plans that might work. Or might not.

No, I’m not talking about the Great Financial Collapse of 2008.

I’m talking about Chesapeake oysters.

One big difference: The Great Oyster Collapse is old news. We’ve known since the last decade of the 19th century that even so bountiful a resource could not sustain itself against our enormous demands.

But, as you’ll read in this week’s paper, nobody listened.

Decade by decade, harvests showed us the truth.

From over 15 million bushels in the years of the 1880s, Maryland’s oyster harvest plummeted to two million bushels in about 1920. Ever since, promising peaks have melted into ever-lower lows. The 2007 harvest of 80,000 bushels is about half the 2006 harvest.

Science and politics have tried every trick in the book to revive a failing native species and to support the failing economy.

Oysters were taken into captivity and artificially inseminated to produce seedling oysters, called spat. Scientists labored over the best ways to set spat in productive oyster beds: On sticks? On mesh bags of oyster shell? Oystermen needing work were hired to dredge up shell, which was then barged to make new beds, often upstream from the salty waters oyster diseases love.

With so little success that at the turn of the century, first Virginia and then Maryland considered rebuilding Chesapeake oystering with a non-breeding strain of Asian oysters.

“In both Maryland and Virginia, policy and action has shown progress — on a small scale,” Bill Goldsboro, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the Oyster Advisory Commission.

On the other hand, said Goldsboro, “Since 1994, we’ve spent $40 million on restoration. But we’ve spent billions over the last 300 years winnowing this resource down.”

Forty million is peanuts compared to the $700 billion bailout Congress is wrestling with to save the financial industry. But for that price, wouldn’t you like good news to replace the steady oyster diet of bad?

It may finally be coming.

Any day now, I’m expecting to read the long-awaited federal and state collaborative Environmental Impact Statement on oyster recovery. After that, the Oyster Advisory Commission will report what we must do for oysters to survive.

It won’t be cheap. The estimate to restore oysters throughout the Bay is $40 to $80 million each year for 10 years. But it just might work.

For an early helping of good oyster news, read Sandy Anderson’s story this week.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher

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