Flying Fish

The Oyster Tale
by Nicole Carlozo -- September 18th, 2012

Clouds loomed menacingly overhead as I crossed the Maryland border into Virginia. I tried to ignore the threat of rain as I made my way towards the historic Stratford Hall of Montrose, VA. I was seeking the home and birthplace of Robert E. Lee, but I wasn’t making the 2 1/2 hour journey for the view, history, or plain fun of it all. No, I was on my way to the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s quarterly meeting and aquaculture tour.

I knew I was close when I passed a sign boasting “George Washington’s Birthplace.” Although the sign beckoned to me, I stayed strong and continued forward.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission (CBC) is a tri-state legislative assembly representing Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania that advises each state on Bay issues and coordinates state policies. Last week’s meeting was a two day event – one day devoted to a Virginia aquaculture tour and another devoted to a more formal decision-making meeting.

When I arrived I was quickly whisked away by CBC staff for introductions and preparations. Before I knew it, we were climbing onto a large bus [“we” meaning politicians, citizen representatives, scientists, environmental managers, CBC staff, and me…a lowly NOAA fellow who felt all the good fortune of this opportunity!].

On the Road Again

The starting point for this journey was steeped in history, so it was only fitting that the day’s initial presentations provided a general history of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab and oyster fisheries. While the blue crab tales ended on a semi-happy note, those for the oyster did not. What’s a manager to do with these shellfish sitting at less than 1% of their historic population? The question taunted me as we listened to our presenters en route to the first stop of the day.

Sadly, the weather prevented us from visiting the nearby blue crab shedding facilities and oyster aquaculture sites. But, we were able to tour an oyster shucking and packing facility, followed by an oyster hatchery.

The machine behind Bevans’ frozen oysters on the half shell

Juvenile hatchery grown oysters.

Adult hatchery oysters. The hatchery produces individual oysters, as well as clustered oysters (pictured here).

Staring off into the Coan River behind the oyster hatchery.

It was late afternoon when we exited the hatchery and walked in view of the Coan River. Water and agricultural land surrounded us, and if you stared hard enough, you could just make out colored aquaculture buoys floating in the distance. The sun dared to peak out from behind the clouds as we gathered together to hear the oyster’s sad tale.  Woe and heartache and disease and decline. Yes, the oyster fishery is just a fraction of what it once was.

The Oyster Tale

The oyster’s tale of woe begins in the 1800s when oysters were hauled and mined from the water for use in roads and construction. Watermen began using dredges, which destroyed up to three quarters of the Bay’s oyster reefs between 1860 and 1920 (See CBF for more info). Overfishing and habitat destruction did occur, yes, but that isn’t the whole story.

Disease in the form of MSX and Dermo swept through the Bay, decimating the now fragile populations. Other populations declined from freshwater input during storm events. And with oysters dying at the young age of 3 or 4, large shells were unavailable for reef growth. A researcher from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science rightly described these occurrences as “natural insults.”

This is where aquaculture comes in. The beacon at the end of the tunnel!

Virginia’s aquaculture industry looks very big to a girl from Maryland, where in-column aquaculture permits are hard to come by and the permitting process has just been re-organized. Will Maryland’s industry follow Virginia’s lead?

A hatchery scientist explained that their industry preserves working waterfront infrastructure and the waterman’s knowledge for future use. Perhaps, one day, the oyster population will exceed the 1% mark. Perhaps, one day, harvest in the Potomac River will exceed this past year’s 340 bushels. Until then, aquaculture might be the way to go.

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