Oysters Are Important for a Healthy Chesapeake Bay
A healthy oyster population is necessary to help maintain the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
When I was growing up here in the 60s, my mother taught me that local oysters were available during months that had the letter “R” in the name. I would look forward to the arrival of fall because it meant oysters would once again be featured in restaurants and available in grocery and seafood stores.
I first tried eating these tasty bivalves as a youngster at a church-sponsored ham and oyster supper where they were coated in cornmeal and fried to a golden brown color. I have to admit I wasn’t sure I would like the taste of these creatures which come from shells that look like deformed rocks, but after dipping them in some cocktail sauce I quickly discovered I enjoyed eating fried oysters.
Back then, the supply of oysters was plentiful as watermen would either dredge with their Skipjack sailboats or use long handled tongs to scrape the oysters from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. No matter how many bushels were harvested, there always seemed to be plenty of oysters.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources states that in the late 1800s, oyster harvests peaked at approximately 15 million bushels each year. Through most of the 20th Century the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay was able to sustain harvests of 2 to 3 million bushels per year.
Unfortunately, during the last 40 years, the parasitic diseases MSX and Dermo, along with the negative effects of pollution have decimated the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
An article on HometownAnnapolis.com reports that since the commercial oystering season opened, many of the oyster bars north of the Bay Bridge are coated with dead oysters.
We now know that a healthy oyster population is vital for maintaining the overall health of the Bay. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oysters filter Bay water to obtain their food and an adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day. The CBF estimates that at one time the Bay’s oyster population could filter the entire water content of the Bay in about a week. It is now thought that it would take the remaining oysters in the Bay nearly a year to filter the all the water.
The Chesapeake Bay Program points out that sediment washing into the Bay in storm water runoff can cover existing oyster beds and smother the oysters. When excessive nutrients are washed into the Bay the algae bloom and subsequent dying algae rob the water of oxygen needed to sustain oysters when they are in the larval stage of development. Healthy oyster beds also provide habitat for fish and crabs.
In order to begin to reverse the decline of the oyster population that is so vital to the health of the Bay, we need to make changes in how we maintain our yards and deal with storm water runoff.
Reducing or eliminating the use of fertilizers on our lawns and upgrading aging septic systems can help lower excessive nutrient levels in the Bay. Preventing sediment laden runoff, which smothers oyster beds, can be accomplished by installing rain gardens in our yards and making sure exposed soil is covered with native vegetation especially in the Critical Area buffer zone.