Not too long ago, I didn't know much about oysters. Sure, I knew some make pearls and some taste good as appetizers, but since then, I’ve learned the oyster is much more than an expensive food at the seafood counter. They are one of the most important species in the Chesapeake Bay.
Oysters are a life source for the Chesapeake Bay. As oysters repopulate, they build reefs that provide food and shelter to small fish and crabs. And just as trees help clean the air, oysters help filter the Bay, which paves the way for more aquatic life. By doing so, oysters act as a sustainable resource for one of the most valuable commercial fisheries. Without oysters, the Bay would a polluted, morbid swampland.
From Harper's Weekly - March 1, 1884
Oysters have been part of the Chesapeake lifestyle since the pre-Colonial era, but used to exist in much greater numbers.
In the 1600s, oysters were so plentiful that their reefs racked above the water surface and posed navigational hazards for ships. The millions of oysters kept the Bay clean and clear up to depths of 20 feet or more.
But history has not been kind to the oyster. Oyster populations have plummeted to 1 percent of their historic pre-colonial levels.
What endangered this once abundant species? A bad case of the humans.
It started with overharvesting in the mid-1800s and advanced to habitat destruction this past century. This was seen in “dead zones,” or cubic miles of oxygen-depleted water, which have risen due to pollution from tributaries upstream. Agricultural runoff has been the largest source of this pollution.
Similar to a cancerous tumor, dead zones signal a much larger problem for the Bay.
High levels of fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste from nearby farms stimulate algae blooms in the water. Algae suck the oxygen from the water, hindering the development of oyster larvae in affected waters. As oysters die, so do the fish. As the fish die, so do their predators. Eventually, the entire ecosystem is put at risk. Over the last three decades, the oyster decline has cost Chesapeake businesses more than $4 billion and cut more than 5,500 oystermen jobs.
In 2010, the issue became a national priority when President Obama stepped in with an executive order aimed at limiting pollutants from impaired waterways, which reduced agricultural chemicals by 25 percent from 2009 levels. Not everyone was pleased. Interest groups opposing Bay cleanup efforts spent more than $18 million lobbying during the 2011-12 election cycle and even blocked a bill that same year on pollution control within the Bay.
This is bad news for our little oyster friends.
The longer government stalls pollution limitations, the more damage this will have on the oyster’s longevity. Even moderately low levels of oxygenated waters increase their susceptibility to deadly diseases such as Dermo. At what point will the entire Chesapeake Bay become a victim?
Now, when I visit the grocery store and look at the oyster through the seafood glass counter, I see a small, clam-like species with a remarkable ability to transform the environment. I also see a species that can take away as much as it provides. Then I look at all of the Bay’s fish at the counter and ask myself, which ones will be served without the oyster?
Top photo courtesy of 663highland.