The World is Your Oyster
If the saying “The world is your oyster” means you are getting everything you want from life, what happens when the health and existence of oysters is endangered? It means the natural balance of organisms living within the Chesapeake Bay and the countless people who rely on it for their livelihood or for recreation are in jeopardy. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office (NCBO), habitat destruction, over-harvesting and disease have caused a dramatic decline in the Bay’s oyster population. This depletion of the native Maryland oyster, the Eastern Oyster, Crassostrea virginica, continues to have an impact on the delicate ecosystem, culture and commercial economy that depends on oysters and other marine life until something is done.
Many environmental conservation groups have championed the cause of oyster restoration for many reasons: the regional economy has thrived on the harvesting of oysters for generations, and these filter-feeding organisms play an important role in helping maintain water quality as they strain water and microscopic algae. However, the effectiveness of oysters to filter water and to reproduce depends on the condition of the surrounding habitat – water salinity, presence of pollution and onset of disease. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), which regulates the waters where oysters are harvested and evaluates the levels and sources of pollution, is supported by many conservationists who have adopted oyster gardens or other aquaculture projects to help re-establish the numbers of these bivalve mollusks.
Environmental organizations like the Magothy River Association, the Severn River Association, the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center and The Chesapeake Bay Foundation – to name a few— have implemented programs and provided funding for research and restoration initiatives. The NCBO has taken major steps to try reinstating a healthy native oyster population by providing $2 million for oyster disease research and $4 million for native oyster restoration in 2006. (For more information on the NCBO’s oyster restoration programs, visit http://chesapeakebay.noaa.gov)
On a governmental level, there has been no shortage of study and action. In 2004, Maryland Department of Natural Resources secretary, a position currently occupied by John R. Griffin, formed an independent advisory panel to work on publishing an environmental impact statement to examine oyster restoration options. Maryland joined the state of Virginia and federal agencies to examine the environmental and economic impact of oyster restoration. Scientific research reports and evaluations of alternatives, such as introducing non-native oysters to the Bay, are ongoing.
In 2007, an Oyster Advisory Commission was founded within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to examine scientific research compiled on oysters in the Bay. The commission, whose members are appointed by Secretary Griffin, also reports to the governor and General Assembly. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also recently released a draft impact statement on oyster restoration. The Chesapeake Shellfish Program, a part of the Fisheries Service, restores oyster populations and habitat by planting shell and oyster seeds.
On a more grassroots level, groups like the Magothy River Association (MRA), led by President Paul Spadaro and a hoard of committed volunteers, realize the importance of getting involved in their own backyards – literally. The MRA monitors an oyster nursery tank at Downs Park in Pasadena and volunteers continuously participate in oyster reef restoration projects to locate sites suitable for further oyster restoration endeavors.
The MRA encourages, volunteers – especially those with waterfront property or access to docks — to join an initiative that trains individuals, families or communities to construct oyster floats for young oysters until they are ready to be relocated to a sanctuary oyster bed. (For more information on the MRA, visit www.magothyriver.org)
The Severn River Association (SRA) has also taken steps to make a difference on a grassroots level. Headed by President Kurt Riegel, the SRA invites members to participate in the “Bay Friendly Neighborhood Program” which calls on community neighborhoods to work together to improve the water quality in the Severn River Watershed. (To learn how your waterfront community can become “Bay friendly,” check out www.severnriver.org)
In another initiative in Anne Arundel County, this one sponsored by the County Department of Public Works and Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, The Watershed Stewards Academy has been instituted to educate community leaders to be “Master Watershed Stewards.” (If you want to learn more about joining the next group of future “Master Watershed Stewards” visit www.arlingtonecho.net/Restoration-Projects)
The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC) in Grasonville has designated close to 300 acres of its waterfront to an oyster sanctuary with four artificial reefs serving as oysters bars. Volunteers of all ages do their part by seeding these bars with the native oysters. The CBEC estimates that more than seven million oysters have been successfully planted. (To learn about membership opportunities, visit www.bayrestoration.org/index.html)
For more information on the Oyster Advisory Commission, visit www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/oysters/ or e-mail Thomas J. O’Connell at [email protected]. For more information on the Chesapeake Shellfish Program, e-mail Christopher C. Judy at [email protected]. For general information on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Oyster, visit www.chesapeakebay.net/american_oyster.htm.
~ Leah Lancione
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