In Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” published in 1836, Sam Weller said, “It is a remarkable circumstance that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.” He cited the existence of an oyster stall to every half dozen houses. “Blessed if I don’t think when a man’s poor, he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in regular desperation.”
The abundance of oysters available in England in 1836 appears to be similar to the abundance of oysters in Chesapeake Bay in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when hundreds of thousands of bushels of oysters were shipped to East Coast cities.
Oysters were a cheap and readily available food, and profitable. Oysters remain popular today but are fewer and more expensive.
However, they continue to stimulate business enterprises and capture our imagination of what used to be. Since the settlement of our country, we have moved from a small population which used seafood for personal consumption and basic food items to a highly valued commercial and recreational fishing industry with increased attention to the health of the environment.
We are all familiar with the question: “Why are we doing what we are doing?” The answer is frequently familiar: “No particular reason; it’s our policy — we’ve always done it this way.”
Or, as some politicians say, “It’s the right thing to do,” hoping to deter any further examination.
If we were to ask why we are doing what we are doing in our attempt to restore oysters in Chesapeake Bay, the answer would be more detailed and more thoughtful, but would it be the right answer? Are we attempting to turn back the clock rather than look realistically at whether we can be successful in restoring oysters to historical abundance? Are there new ways to think about managing oysters in the Bay and achieving the environmental, social and economic benefits of abundant oyster populations?
The question of managing oysters in the Chesapeake Bay becomes one of understanding complex natural events in order to assess the status of oysters; protecting the environment upon which oysters depend; attempting to regulate our use without suffering too much economic and social harm; cooperating with neighbor states; and not violating existing laws.
Natural fluctuations and long-term changes in the abundance of fish and oyster populations, though, are the rule rather than the exception. More often, natural fluctuations do not fit well with expectations or the economic needs of fishermen, processors, markets or laws established at an earlier time under different circumstances.
Often, we simply cannot explain what is happening. Such fluctuations and natural changes confuse the analysis of cause and effect and our ability to respond. Our knowledge is expanding, but there are still significant gaps in our understanding.
During the last two decades, in particular, undesirable changes and declines in the oyster populations in the Bay have been documented.
Prior to the 1980s, there were annual fluctuations and changes in oyster abundance, and while oysters were not as abundant as they were l00 years ago, the populations were stable and yielded an annual average harvest of nearly 2 million bushels a year. As late as 1975, landings in Chesapeake Bay exceeded landings in the rest of the United States.
A predominant factor in the decline has been oyster parasites that appear to be just as dominant today as they have ever been. It is unknown whether the parasites will diminish or disappear, but we can draw some lessons from other areas of the United States and the world, where new oysters species were introduced.
We have the skipjack as the icon of Chesapeake Bay because oyster populations in New England declined dramatically in the early 1900s — perhaps because of parasites and disease — and those sailing harvesters moved to the Chesapeake, where oysters were abundant.
Some will argue that this was a cause of the decline in Chesapeake Bay. That may be true, but it does not answer the question of why oyster populations have not recovered in some areas of the Bay, even after almost two decades of little or no harvest plus several years of good reproduction, or why oyster populations in New England have not recovered after 100 years.
In the discourse on how to best manage our natural resources, there is abundant discussion of biological diversity, and an understanding that man is part of the environment, yet there has been strong resistance to the consideration of another species of oysters. In fact, Maryland law provides that … “A lessee may plant, cultivate, sow, or protect oysters only of the species known as Crassostrea virginica in the waters of the State.”
The importance of oysters can be measured by the volume of oyster laws in the Maryland Natural Resources Annotated Code and the millions of dollars appropriated for oyster restoration.
There are other examples around the world where native oyster stocks have declined or were inadequate to supply the demand for oysters and other species of oysters were imported.
Concerns exist, and are often expressed in Maryland, that imported oysters would overwhelm native oysters and inhibit their recovery. But in light of the failure of our native stocks to show any promise of recovery, despite millions of dollars spent on recovery efforts, (largely done the way it has always been done — using fossil oyster shells) perhaps this requires a new look.
The Commonwealth of Virginia is clearly interested and has apparently made a decision that something different is needed. They are actively investigating a new species that shows promise. In other areas where a new species was imported, the native oysters continue to exist along with the new species. In biological diversity terms, if one oyster species is good, why aren’t two better?
Some would argue that we should be concerned about bringing in a new species because of some examples where imported species became a pest or nuisance. We should honor this concern, but we should also not be blind to the advantages and benefits that may result from judicious consideration of a new species when our native species is failing for reasons we cannot explain or correct. After all, where would agriculture and horticulture be without the introduction of new species?
It is a curious thought that arguably the most invasive species on the face of the earth, Homo sapiens, should be overly concerned about the impact of another species being introduced into “our” environment. Could it be that we humans have changed the environment so much that our native oysters stocks simply cannot recover to their previous abundance?