Why we should care about oysters

Almost every Marylander and Virginian takes great pride in the Chesapeake Bay.  The historical estuary has served citizens for years through its recreational offerings as well as its commercial opportunity.  One of the biggest commercial opportunities that the Bay provides is its oysters.

Oysters not only serve as a source of income for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and its residents, but are also a historical staple and source of pride for the people of Maryland and Virginia.  Unfortunately, they are also severely threatened and need political intervention to be salvaged.

Alas, due to over-exploitive fishing practices and pollution, we are not only losing a delicious appetizer, but also a plethora of ecosystem services from the Chesapeake Bay oysters.  According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oyster harvests are down to 1% of their historical levels.  If intervention does not occur and the Oyster population is further squandered, the already unhealthy Chesapeake Bay is headed for a disastrous tipping point.

One of the oysters’ crucial responsibilities is filtering particulate matter from the bay.  This supports aquatic plant life and improves water quality, a valuable service in an estuary subject to large amounts of runoff such as the Chesapeake Bay.

The presence of oysters also creates oyster reefs, which provide crucial habitat for numerous other small fish and crustaceans that call the bay home.  Along with this, oyster reefs serve as a living breakwater and play a huge part in protecting valuable wetlands in an ever more violent and unpredictable climate.

Possibly the most alarming aspect of oyster loss is the fact that oysters are a keystone species in the Bay.  They play a pivotal role in keeping the Chesapeake Bay’s rich ecosystem in balance.  According to Grabowski et. al., a decrease in oysters can lead to entire regime-shifts within estuaries to an ecosystem inhabited mostly by phytoplankton and microbial organisms.  Without a favorable environment for plant life along with crucial habitat and protection of ecologically-rich wetlands which oysters provide, aquatic life in the Bay could come to a stand-still.

But what can be done?  The main causes of oyster decline in the Bay are destructive fishing practices and pollution.  To solve this issue and avoid a catastrophic tipping point in the Bay, a few policies need to be put in place.

First, a cap and trade scheme needs to be implemented.  By first calculating the maximum amount of oysters that can be harvested while still allowing for regeneration, a total allowable catch can be established.  Then, fishermen will receive a tradable share of the catch that they cannot surpass.

Some think that the oyster fishery is too lucrative to limit, but the Environmental Defense Fund carried out a survey of 10 fisheries in America with a cap and trade scheme and discovered that through this system, boat revenues actually increased by 80%.  Along with this increase in revenues, the oyster population will be allowed to regenerate, leading to higher total allowable catch numbers in the future.

Fishermen are not only overfishing, but they are destroying oyster reefs- a source of ecosystem services and a necessity for oyster regeneration.  To target this issue, incentives should be issued to those who practice less-harmful fishing methods such as using hand tongs rather than dredging.  Also, open source technology should be established for the effort of developing more efficient and less harmful fishing methods.

Lastly, a pollution tax targeting agricultural, urban, and development runoff needs to be implemented.  These sectors would be taxed based on the efforts that they are making to mitigate harmful runoff, such as installing stream buffers.  The revenues collected from this tax would then be used to support these exact mitigation efforts through technological support.

The current status of the Chesapeake Bay oyster population is alarming and needs to be addressed.  The ecology of the Bay is still not fully understood, and it is entirely possible that the decline in oysters could lead to an unpredicted tipping point leading to a complete shift in the estuary’s ecology.

Not only would this be an ecological loss, but also an economic loss.  The Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery is around the third most valuable fishery in Maryland and Virginia, amounting to a combined $10 million in 2010. On top of this, if the Bay does reach a tipping point due to oyster loss, numerous other lucrative fisheries will take a hit.

The decline of Oysters is almost entirely human caused, meaning we caused the problem and we have the ability to reverse it.  For the sake of the Chesapeake Bay, its inhabitants, and the people that rely on it, it is crucial that this keystone species is saved and supported.