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Disease-Resistant Oyster May Be Key to Chesapeake Bay Recovery

Oysters are only at 1 percent of historic levels in the Chesapeake Bay. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Oysters are only at 1 percent of historic levels in the Chesapeake Bay. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
February 11, 2016

BALTIMORE – Marine police are cracking down on illegal oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay, but catching someone in action isn't easy.

It's just one effort to help restore the oyster population, which is only at 1 percent of historical levels.

Operations to restore reefs and plant seed oysters are under way, and to develop a new, disease-resistant oyster.

Jana Davis, director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, says that research holds a lot of promise. She says the work is a joint project of local, state and federal agencies, as well as other organizations and nonprofit groups.

"We'd love to see the oyster come back to a level that we could really, you know, fish it and use it and eat it,” she states. “And you know, it's our culture, it's our history, so we want to get there. The question is how can we get there, and how can we work together?"

Davis adds oysters filter nutrients, and at one point, there were so many oysters in the Chesapeake Bay that they filtered all the water every three days.

Now, the shortage due to disease and water pollution also means there are dead zones in the bay where nothing thrives.

Davis says every group and agency has the same goal – restoring native oysters in the Bay. With so many agencies involved, however, she says a lot of negotiating has to be done.

"There's lots of competing interests,” she explains. “So, if you put an oyster reef on the bottom of a tributary, someone else might have been intending to use that, or had eyes for it, in some other way.

“If you designate one area a sanctuary, those folks who want to access the resource then can't. So, there do tend to be competing interests."

Davis says restoring the oyster reefs and setting aside no fishing zones in the Bay will be key to helping them repopulate.

Davis sees the oyster as part of the history of the area, and says most people want to see it restored.

"I think we're doing a good job on educating folks,” she states. “It helps that the oyster is tasty and lots of people like to eat it.

“Oysters are popular and prominent, and important species in other estuaries across the United States, and so, this isn't an issue that's just unique to the Chesapeake Bay."


Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MD