A foodie’s view of Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration

Reed Hellman

MORE: Find a recipe for Original Oysters Guilford here

Maybe a half-century ago, Maryland’s motor vehicle administration headquarters, located on Guilford Avenue in uptown Baltimore, shared space with a warehouse used by the old Department of Geology, Mines, and Water Resources. As a fledgling field tech, I spent considerable time in that dusty vault, surrounded by samples of earth from all over the state.

Two elderly gentlemen also worked in that warehouse, and on a winter day they set up a portable hot plate and began shucking oysters. I had made a point of avoiding oysters, totally put off by their mucous-like appearance. How could people actually eat anything that looked that hideous? But, as the gentlemen dredged the oysters in egg wash and seasoned breadcrumbs and fried them on the hotplate, the seductive aroma got me to re-think my position. After a bit of cajoling, I actually tasted one and immediately joined the legions of people who relish the Chesapeake delight.

Fifty years has done nothing to diminish my enjoyment, but those years have not been kind to Crassostrea virginica, the Chesapeake oyster. The combined pressures of disease, over-harvesting, and pollution reduced native Chesapeake Bay oyster populations to less than 1 percent of historic levels.

At their peak, oyster harvests regularly exceeded 10 million bushels a year. However, the 1990s saw harvests of fewer than 100,000 bushels annually. “Last year’s harvest was 422,000 bushels,” said Mike Naylor of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “We don’t speculate on future harvest, but we expect [this year’s harvest] to be similar to last season.”

Though paltry in comparison to historical harvests, last year’s oyster catch was actually an improvement. The Maryland Oyster Population Status Report’s 2013 Fall Survey states that “… oyster populations continue to thrive in many parts of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Most encouragingly, the 2013 Maryland Oyster Biomass Index, a combined measure of oyster abundance and sizes, increased for the third consecutive year, more than doubling the 2010 Index and reaching its highest point on record. … As a result, oyster harvests have increased.”

Why the increase?

Restoration efforts, driven by new laws and numerous public and private organizations in Maryland and Virginia, play a role in that upswing. Sarah Gross, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore District, explained: “The Maryland DNR is the non-federal sponsor for oyster restoration activities in Maryland. Additional project partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that maps available restorable water bottom … and funds the production and planting of seed oysters. The Corps of Engineers constructs reef structure where none currently exists. The Oyster Restoration Project plants oyster spat [baby oysters] grown at the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery on restoration sites.”

ORP has recorded planting more than 5 billion oysters on 1,600 acres of oyster reefs and recycling approximately 1,400 tons of oyster shell to provide homes for new oysters.

In Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia Oyster Restoration Center operates from a property on Gloucester Point along the York River and on a small oyster farm a few miles away on Sarah Creek. The VAORC and associated programs have planted nearly 40 million oysters across Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

VAORC’s small scale commercial oyster farm demonstrates the feasibility of oyster aquaculture. “In Virginia, oyster aquaculture farms are quickly growing in number,” said DNR’s Naylor. “They are doing millions [of dollars] every year, hundreds of thousands of bushels. It’s also rapidly growing in Maryland.

“We are transitioning from wild caught to farm-raised oysters,” he continued. “In the last four years, the laws in Maryland have changed. Aquaculture can grow oysters like a farmer grows corn. They rent public bottom in the Chesapeake. The shucked oysters that you buy are pretty much farm-raised.”

Oysters may have increased, but not nearly enough to rebuild an ecosystem similar to the Chesapeake before the oyster stock collapsed. Oyster reefs improve the health of the bay by filtering its water. At their population peak, oysters filtered the entire bay in just a few days.

For more information about your role in oyster restoration, contact the Chesapeake Bay Foundation at 1-888-SAVEBAY or cbf.org.

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit his website at reedhellmanwordsmith.com or email your questions and comments to rhway2go@yahoo.com.

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