The Rebirth of the Chesapeake Bay Oyster

The iconic beauty of the Chesapeake Bay spans 64,000 square miles of coastal Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. The watershed’s once abundant and precious resources helped define the area, while providing livelihoods for the generations who have worked these beautiful shores.

Today though, the Chesapeake Bay is faced with an urgent issue: the decline, and possible demise, of the precious bay oyster.  How did the bay oyster situation get so dire? Bay pollution, overharvested reefs and disease have ravaged the oyster population!  Unfortunately, the numbers are not promising – the Chesapeake Bay oyster populations are currently only about one percent of their historic abundance.

But, with bold steps being taken to improve, revive and restore the bay’s severely dwindled oyster population by states such as Maryland and Virginia, and conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program, the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, there is hope.

As restaurant consultants who love the briny sweet flavor of local oysters, this is a cause near and dear to our heart and so we wanted to share with you some of the efforts currently underway to replenish and restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster:

Encouraging Private Aquaculture. Virginia supports local watermen by allowing them to harvest oysters on a rotating basis (about every two years), and also sells plots of riverbed and bay floor to these oyster farmers.

Rebuilding Reefs. Restoring, rebuilding and restocking reefs with oysters are a high priority as oysters 1) feed by filtering microscopic plants from the water, therefore improving water quality and clarity and 2) form large reefs, thereby creating natural habitats for a multitude of marine life. Reefs are so vital to the cause that Maryland has taken steps to protect theirs by forbidding oyster harvesting on a quarter of its reefs.

 

Creating Large Sanctuaries. These sanctuaries, like the one in Virginia’s Rappahannock River, are being created to preserve the bay environment in the hopes that the bay oysters will flourish.

Recycling Oyster Shells. Since oyster shells are a limited resource and provide a natural habitat for new oysters, the collection of used oyster shells from area restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers is crucial. Once collected, the shells are washed and used as setting material for fertilized eggs (called ‘spat’). Once attached, the spat grows in area reefs to help replenish the oyster population.

Although this work will continue for years, there have already been great strides. A recent Maryland survey showed the highest oyster survival rate since 1985 … 92 percent! And while Virginia harvested only 79,600 bushels of oysters in 2005, they racked up 236,200 last year – the most since 1989 – and Maryland had only 26,400 bushels in 2005, but hauled in 121,200 last year.

This issue is not only important for us as restaurant consultant and food service consultant professionals, but for all those in the Chesapeake Bay area: the watermen that work these waters, the locals and visitors who want to feast on the area’s best oysters, and more importantly the legacy we leave our children.

Please visit The Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program or the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for more information.

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