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William “Bubba” Bonniville tonged for oysters in the James River off of Newport News, Virginia, circa 2003
Photo: Bryan Hatchett

June used to be the season of love for Chesapeake Bay oysters, the warmer waters setting off clouds of spawning. In former times, people avoided eating oysters during these summer (“non-R”) months. Refrigeration was unreliable, and it’s only right to leave procreating and infant mollusks in peace.

But this June there’s real concern that the delicious oysters from the bay may be completely disappearing in this season or any future one — romance, R-month or no. David A. Fahrenthold’s piece for the Washington Post finds that though state and federal governments have poured in $58 million since 1994 to build back the Chesapeake’s oyster beds, “official estimates show there are fewer oysters in the bay and fewer oystermen trying to catch them.” Fourteen years of effort have not worked.

A recent analysis by the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science predicts especially poor harvests of oysters, crab and rockfish this summer, due to “low oxygen conditions and blooms of harmful algae” in the Chesapeake Bay.

“The problems are coming from our backyards, our barnyards and our boat yards,” says William Dennison, an environmental scientist with the University of Maryland center. “It’s everything that we’re doing on land that’s creating the nutrient sediment input into the Bay.”

Several Virginia and Maryland counties on or near the bay — also near the nation’s capitol — are among the fastest growing in the nation.

Rapid growth in North Georgia is having an impact on Florida oyster beds, too. Melissa Nelson, writing for AP, describes how competition for the water in Lake Lanier has pitted oystermen like Keith Millender of Apalachicola Bay against developers around fast-growing Atlanta. This region of the Southeast has been in a severe drought, and both Florida oyster catchers and suburban Georgia homeowners are dependent on lake flow.

Oysters don’t just taste good; they serve a lowly but critical role in the environment by filtering the intertidal waters where they grow. But when there’s excessive runoff into their waterways, silt clogs the bivalves’ openings; it prevents them from taking water in and eventually the oysters die.

‘Tonging’ is the traditional method for harvesting oysters. Long-handled, scissorlike tongs have rakes on the end. This photo, on the James River near Newport News, VA, was taken some twenty years ago.
Photo: Bryan Hatchett

The Chesapeake’s oyster beds were once so vast that harvesting them involved just darting into the water near the shore. Reefs, stacked tall and healthy, “grazed the bottoms of boats.”

As early as the 19th century, though, overfishing had begun taking a toll. With the beds already diminished to one quarter their size, two parasitic diseases — Dermo and MSX — then spread through the Chesapeake starting in the 1950s, and thirty years later had nearly wiped Crassostrea virginica, the native oyster, out.

Since 1994, state and federal governments have spent millions to rebuild reefs, to breed more disease-resistant mollusks, and to establish sanctuaries (cownosed rays and other underwater predators find oysters as delicious as humans do). Lawrence Latane writes that a new kind of oyster farming is being tried as well: seeding oysters and protecting the young bivalves in well-kept cages for 18-months. It’s an expensive alternative to wild oyster tonging, but the wild reefs continue to disappear. Meanwhile, the area’s oyster processing facilities, which had been handling mollusks from Texas and Louisiana during these lean years, find that packers can’t afford the fuel costs anymore ““ they need locally grown oysters.

Chesapeake Bay Report Card for 2007 — C-
Map: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

One very controversial suggestion that’s been debated for half a century is to introduce a non-native oyster to the bay and see if it can do better than Crassostrea virginica. “Researchers, resource managers, conservationists, and those in the industry are considering whether the risks of such an introduction would outweigh the potential benefits.” Clearly, everyone’s leery of the idea, especially since it appears that the MSX disease was introduced into the Chesapeake “as a hitchhiker on a non-native oyster.”

An editorial in the Fredericksburg (VA) Free Lance-Star described the scale and complexity of the region’s problem: “The primary lesson, one that has been hammered home as the Chesapeake Bay blue crab numbers have dwindled, is that in order to save the bay’s creatures, you first have to save the bay –or at least be able to show real signs of progress toward recovery. But oysters are also at the center of the bay recovery conundrum: They have always been the estuary’s best natural water filter, and without their help the cleanup is that much more difficult.”

Note: Many thanks to photographer Bryan Hatchett. Hatchett produces an annual Watermen calendar with beautiful images, tide charts, and seafood recipes. The 2009 Calendar will soon be available through Hampton Stationery, Hampton Virginia —