Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Chesapeake oyster tragedy

The fabled watermen of the Chesapeake Bay have just finished digging their own grave, and they're taking the oysters with them.

This is a sad story that didn't have to be this way. Oysters used to be so numerous that they cleaned the Bay every 3 days, and oyster reefs were a hazard to navigation. But overfishing has removed most of the oysters and destroyed the oyster shell reefs necessary to provide a good home for young oysters.

The oyster catch is now down around 1/1000 of the rich plunder of a century ago, and pessimists outnumber optimists. Oytster farming, once a heresy, is now the most likely hope for an oyster revival.

It's enough to make an oyster lover cry. Where did the oyster-loving watermen go so wrong? Why did the government allow it to happen? Why were we the people asleep at the wheel?

hat tip: Shifting Baselines

5 comments:

oysterman said...

Calling the Chesapeake oyster decline the result of overfishing is naive at best and down right ignorant of the facts of the matter at worst. Over development and encroachment on the habitat are much more to blame for the decline in oysters. As oysters are filter feeders their populations are directly impacted by water quality. More so than most species. This problem really has much more to do with the population explosion around the bay and very little to do with anything the fishermen have, or have not, done.

Mark Powell said...

Industrial-scale removal of oysters and oyster shell reefs helped ruin the bay. The oyster decline was at it's worst when overfishing was at it's worst, not when water quality was at it's worst. Check out this reference: http://www.ifremer.fr/docelec/notice/1991/notice3058.htm

Anonymous said...

Of course, oystermen have a point that pollution and runaway development are a big part of the problem. Oysters need clean water like every other living thing.

But if there is to be any hope at all that future generations of bay residents might enjoy a healthy oyster fishery, we'll have to do the responsible thing now -- back off on the oyster harvest to give those oysters that are resistant to pollution and disease a chance to reproduce.

Eric

Wolfman Jack said...

Another good and fascinating reference on the Chesapeake oyster tragedy is "The Oyster" by William Brooks, originally published in 1891 and republished by Johns Hopkins Press in 1996. Believe it or not the debate on the cause of the oyster decline goes back to before the turn of the century. Brooks likely knew more about the Chesapeake oyster and its decline that anyone alive then and possibly since. He nailed the cause of the early declines back than as too much demand, overharvesting, and mismanagement, and predicted later declines, if immediate action wasn't taken. When looked at closely, the pollution cause arguments do not hold up well at all, and the disease arguments at best explain part of the later declines, long after much of the oyster's decimation had occurred. The truth is that overharvesting was primarily responsible for most of the reduction in the Chesapeake's oyster population and that this decimation began over a century ago. Furthermore, if one looks beyond the Chesapeake, this pattern of decimation of natural oyster beds is also seen in an arc across the North Atlantic throughout the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Europe, and in other parts of the world. In some of these locations the destruction took place even earlier, and in some the pollution and disease arguments have no validity at all.

Kevin said...

sorry oysterboy. same as with the crabs. If you take a resource stressed by bad water and disease and harvest as much as you can, than that is the last stake in the heart.

no mater. all oysters are doomed as the sea grows acidic.

CO2 in water ==> "As we add CO2 to water, it forms carbonic acid, which lowers the pH. The more CO2 that gets dissolved into the water, the lower the pH"

so kiss your oysters goodbye.