Monday, April 09, 2007

When oysters ruled the world

It was a better time, waters were clear, fish were abundant, and the (eel)grass was greener. Alas, those days are gone along with the oysters.

Massive oyster reefs 20 feet high and miles long have now been lost to a tide of overfishing, along with secondary harm from habitat destruction and disease. Once upon a time, in 1880, 100 million pounds of oysters were pulled from the Chesapeake Bay. Now, oyster catch is down to 250,000 pounds, just 0.25 % of the former bounty.

Oysters are amazing for more than their heavenly taste. A large adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and filtration is what the Chesapeake Bay sorely needs. With nutrients up, filtering out plankton is a vital service to the ecosystem. If only...

Is there hope? Maybe we can rely on farmed oysters for reversing some of the damage. That certainly seems better than the scary prospect of introducing an exotic oyster and hoping it helps. Anyone remember the Zebra mussel?

The Chesapeake may not recover from our destruction of the heroic oyster populations, and that's a shame. This is a lesson for those who would overfish to provide jobs. If we had it to do over again, I doubt anyone would support overfishing of oysters. Instead, overfishing of oysters would probably be a serious crime punishable by several years in jail.

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