This spring, data released by Maryland DNR and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission showed dramatic recovery for our beloved blue crab, as well as the most important fish in the sea, the Atlantic Menhaden. Another neighbor of the blue crab and menhaden that is making a rock and roll recovery, is the Chesapeake Bay oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which is having the most robust harvest in decades; data shows almost 900,000 bushels harvested last year (these numbers may be higher if you add in floats and cages). With almost 90% of the world’s reefs damaged or gone, this recovery is a huge financial boon for another favorite son, the bay watermen.
The benefit of the great bay oyster goes beyond the multi-million dollars it can generate for the economy. Oysters can filter 50 gallons of water a day, promote the growth of vital bay grasses, and help create a healthy environment for the little guys that exist at the bottom of the food chain. Pollution in the mid-20th century as well diseases such as Dermo and MSX hammered the oyster, and led many to abandon it as a lost cause. Some, such as Cherrystone Aquafarms moved to clams (of course, this is another success story: a $15 million clam company in Northampton).
So, what exactly is the story with Crassostrea virginica? I found out about it by reading a post on the Yale Environment 360 site by Rona Kobell, and it all has to do with a scientist at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Standish K. Allen. Mr. Allen developed a triploid (this species has three chromosomes vs. two, which allows them to reach maturity in 18 months, and is also impervious to disease). As Mr. Allen had developed triploids in Maine and the Pacific Northwest, Virginia hired him to do just that here in the bay. After a battery of tests in the early 2000s, it turned out that the “native C. virginica species was superior in virtually all respects, from its knack for building oyster reefs to its ability to outrun disease with its rapid growth”.
With this data in place, Allen turned his brood over to private hatcheries that were able to grow the oyster in 10 months. Since that time, C. virginica began to get a firm foothold in our waters, and also in Maryland where over 4,000 acres are currently under lease. The totals are impressive, with “474 people working in shellfish aquaculture. Its dockside value for aquaculture in 2014 was more than $3 million; the wild harvest exceeded $14 million. Virginia has 104,000 acres under lease, five private hatcheries to raise seeds, processing houses to shuck the meat, and an infrastructure to send its oysters all over the world. In 2014, the value of the Virginia farm-raised oyster and clam harvest topped $55.9 million.”
For our waterman, the task of making a living oystering has also taken a step forward. Going after wild oysters, and having to contend with sometimes less than friendly conditions, has been tempered by the farming industry. Losing days and time due to bad conditions on the water doesn’t happen nearly as often when dealing with farmed, somewhat known and contained beds, allowing for waterman to have a more predictable income stream.
Bob Panek and the Town of Cape Charles have taken a fairly healthy bit of criticism over the new waste water plant. Although it may have its issues, and is an easy target for political fodder, we should also look at the good; mainly its role as part of the effort to clean up the bay so that oysters, crabs and other creatures can someday thrive again. The new plant discharges far less nitrogen and phosphorus into the bay than the previous one. Whatever the criticism, the new plant was giant step forward in helping to clean the bay. Better agricultural management and a fully extensible regional system (more granular and far reaching than what is proposed by the PSA) will decrease our bay footprint by an order of magnitude.
As was accurately noted by Ms. Kobell, the oyster comeback also has a lot to do with superior, more forward thinking management techniques, such as “large oyster sanctuaries instead of small, postage-stamp ones; more shell replenishment in the Chesapeake; an active plan to clean oyster reefs so the sediment doesn’t cover oysters; and an aggressive plan to plant hatchery seed”.
With Eyre Baldwin’s plan to revitalize the town of Oyster, the success of C. virginica, and the Virginia Oyster Trail, these are certainly exciting times. As these efforts on land are bringing Oyster back to life, the robust status of C. virginica is doing the same for other creatures in the water that thrive on this symbiotic relationship–helping to clean the water, encourage more grasses to improve habitat, as well promoting the recruitment of other fish.
On June 13th, King Neptune will find a new home in Cape Charles, overlooking the beautiful Chesapeake from a pedestal in the dunes of our beach. One has to think that the old king has to be feeling pretty good about what is happening in this part of his kingdom.