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Shell Game

When it Comes to the Chesapeake Bay's Failing Oyster Fishery, Maryland and Virginia Make Uneasy Bedfellows

Sam Holden
I'm Your Captain: Skipjack Skipper Russell Dize
Voyage to the Bottom of the Bay: Scientist Gary Smith's Oyster Cam
Waterman Lewis Carter

By Charles Cohen | Posted 10/16/2002

For the first time in her 101 years afloat, Russell Dize's skipjack, the Kathryn, is going to miss an oyster season. The Kathryn is one of about 10 working Chesapeake Bay skipjacks left, most of which are moored up the road at Tilghman Island's municipal dock. The Kathryn, however, sits by herself, tied to a gangplank-thin dock along the grassy bank off Chicken Point Road, her new mast gleaming. The 61-year-old Dize looks past his boat with a kind of thousand-yard stare earned from a lifetime of working on the water.

"You see that creek there," he says pointing across the channel. "The water that goes up in there . . . [that's] Broad Creek. This is Harris Creek. They used to be the two best hatcheries in the state of Maryland--I'd say probably in the United States. I've seen bushels of shells come out of there when we used to plant shells [to make oyster beds] with 5,000 spat--small oysters--per bushel. And it's dead. Both of them dead."

While the miserable condition of the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population is no surprise to anyone working the water, the decision to forfeit the season is particularly aggravating for Dize, especially since a possible remedy for the ailing fishery lies tantalizingly just out of reach.

The region's oysters have been dying by degrees for the last half-century, ever since the parasitic diseases Dermo and MSX (neither of which is harmful to humans) began devastating the bay's Crassostrea virginica, or eastern oyster, in the 1950s. After decades of studies, experiments, and selective breeding of surviving C. virginica, there was little hope left to arrest the fishery's total collapse. That is until Virginia scientists happened upon Crassostrea ariakensis.

In 1995, the Virginia legislature issued a resolution calling for scientists to look at non-native oysters as a way to resurrect the even more depleted oyster population in the commonwealth's end of the bay. (The constant influx of fresh water from rivers in Maryland's upper portion of the bay has buffered it somewhat against the diseases, which thrive in salinity.) So, led by scientist Standish Allen Jr., director of the aquaculture genetics and breeding technology center at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences at William and Mary College, Virginia started looking at Asian oysters. Allen had done research in the '70s with oysters in Pacific Northwest, but the Japanese oyster he worked with then proved unsuitable for the Chesapeake. C. ariakensis, on the other hand, was more promising. It reaches market size in a year's time, compared to the two to four years that it takes C. virginica. More importantly, C. ariakensis has shown resistance to MSX and Dermo.

Revitalizing the ailing fishery would not only be an obvious benefit to a waterman like Dize, the comeback of the oyster could help restore the moribund bay itself. But before Gov. Parris Glendening signed a bill this past legislative session calling for the study of ariakensis, Maryland state officials were reluctant to consider a non-native species, even as Virginia forged ahead. "They're taking Virginia data and going over it," Dize says. "But Maryland isn't doing any scientific physical evidence [on C. ariakensis]."

Maryland's reservations about introducing a non-native species into the bay amount to more than mere foot-dragging. It's an issue that takes easy platitudes about "saving the bay" into uncertain waters. While the hardy C. ariakensis offers potentially rich rewards, it would almost certainly out-compete the already flagging C. virginica in its own habitat, hastening its extinction and possibly undermining an already fragile ecosystem that scientists are still trying to understand. And while watermen, scientists, lobbyists, businesspeople, and public officials mull over what course of action to take, two states continue their long history of disagreement over the use and fate of the bay.

Colonial-era descriptions of the bay indicate that its oyster beds were once so massive that they made navigation hazardous. By the late 1800s, dredges began to mass-harvest the bivalves, bringing in up to 15 million bushels of oysters a year. A hundred years later, Dermo and MSX showed up and effectively condemned the fishery to a slow death. In the 1950s, Virginia still led the industry, pulling in 4 million bushels a year; Maryland harvested 2 million to 3 million. According to state Department of Natural Resources records, Maryland entered the 1980s harvesting 2.1 million bushels and it left the decade bringing in 414,445 bushels. The 1993-'94 season reaped the worst Maryland harvest on record with a mere 79,618 bushels. Last year, levels had picked up to 148,000 bushels.

While no one can accurately predict the coming year's harvest, one scientist spends his days crisscrossing the Lower Choptank River, measuring historic oysters bars by peering through a camera he drags behind his boat, guided by pinpoint readings from satellite positioning technology. Gary Smith, a scientist at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, isn't out on the water to examine the oyster diseases, but he can't help but be awed by their proficiency. Transmitted to a small screen on the boat, the camera's eye view looks like a static blizzard on a black and white television--except the snow is mud and sentiment settling over barren expanses that were once oyster-rich bottom.

"It's very apparent when you look at the bottom--and I'm very familiar with the data--that it's exceedingly difficult [for oysters] to be successful with these disease pressures going on in the bay," Smith says. "The disease issue is paramount here."

While Dermo and MSX have been the major culprits in C. virginica's decline, scientist Roger Newell says the issue is more complicated. Newell, who works at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, points out that while disease gets all the blame, much of the long-term damage was created by the huge yearly harvest--"virtually clear-cutting oysters like virgin forests," he says. And, he points out, losing the bay's oysters has ramifications for all those living by the bay, not just a few watermen and gourmands.

Oysters are often referred to as "filter feeders," meaning they gather their food (mostly phytoplankton and other floating microscopic nutrients) by sucking in seawater, filtering out what they can eat, and squeezing the water back out. What that means on a biospheric scale is that oysters serve as a major filtering system for the Chesapeake. In a breakthrough 1987 study, Newell estimated that until about 1870, when regional oyster bars weren't yet heavily harvested, bivalves would filter the entire bay in three to six days. Today, Newell says, what's left of the oysters take almost a year to filter the bay.

A healthy, revitalized oyster fishery would do much to counter overnutrification caused by runoff from farms, lawns, and sewage treatment plants, which is generally seen as the major culprit in the bay's current decline. Without enough oysters to consume the resulting overgrowth of algae, the algae blocks sunlight, killing valuable sea grasses and other organisms--another contributing factor to the grim, desolate images Smith sees through his cameras.

Even as Maryland scientists such as Don Meritt, aquaculture specialist for the Horn Point Laboratory, work to prop up failing stocks of C. virginica, they are dealing with a habitat that booming human population has radically transformed. "We might find we have a native oyster that may have evolved to live in an bay that really doesn't exist anymore," Meritt says.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences' Standish Allen Jr. describes himself as wearing both the white and the black hat. As the good guy, he has been researching the Chesapeake's native oyster, looking for a superior strain that can thrive in the bay's increasingly inhospitable environment. As the bad guy, he can't ignore the promising results of studies involving C. ariakensis.

"The [seafood] industry sums it up pretty good," Allen says of ariakensis. "They grow fast, they don't die, and they taste good."

C. ariakensis, which has been introduced successfully as a non-native species in the Pacific Northwest and in France without problems, has resisted Dermo and MSX and grows about three times faster than native Chesapeake oysters. In fact, if left unchecked the Asian oyster can grow to the size of a dinner plate, says Don Webster, a marine agent for the University of Maryland Sea Grant Extension Programs.

The new oyster's potential hasn't gone unnoticed by Virginia's seafood industry, which would love to restore its leased oyster grounds and resurrect its shucking houses. The industry, under Virginia Instituteof Marine Sciences supervision, has been ramping up the number of sterile C. ariakensis they have been test-growing in special enclosures in the bay, going from 6,000 to 60,000 oysters last year. This past spring, the Virginia Instituteof Marine Sciences and the state's seafood processors proposed moving forward with the ultimate test: placing 1 million young sterilized C. ariakensis in open Chesapeake waters to grow to market size.

This caused some concern. Not only was the planned numbers of oysters much larger than any previous experiment, but the operation would have been placed in the hands of more than two dozen commercial growers, some of whom had had little experience raising oysters. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Julie Thompson notes, "Once you move from [the Virginia Instituteof Marine Sciences] to the industry, there might not be as much biosecurity," or care taken to make sure the alien oysters are properly monitored and contained.

The decision to try sterile C. ariakensis in open water could have irreversible consequences, in large part because scientists are concerned that the oysters may not remain sterile. The experimental bivalves are made infertile by a process Allen invented in which a third set of chromosomes is added to an oyster's DNA, making it "triploid" (as opposed to the normal diploid condition) and therefore unable to reproduce. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, these triploids sometimes lose their extra chromosomes over time and may regain their reproductive ability; given a failure rate of even 1 percent or 2 percent, a million supposedly sterile C. ariakensis dumped in the bay could result in 10,000 to 20,000 fertile, disease-resistant oysters ready to colonize it on their own. The potential for unforeseen environmental complications are immense.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission, an ad hoc advisory agency to bay-area states, unanimously voted against the Virginia test proposal, which was later withdrawn. But Thompson, who specializes in invasive non-native species in the bay for the USFWS' Chesapeake Bay field office, notes that Virginia doesn't need anyone's approval to move forward with more cultivation trails of C. ariakensis. "The only thing that causes me concern is one state could make a decision that could affect all the other states that share that water body," she says. "You're making a decision for the entire Chesapeake Bay region and possibly for the entire East Coast."

Everyone from scientist Allen to waterman Dize is calling for use of C. ariakensis only after it is proven safe. But how can a non-native species ever be scientifically dubbed safe?

This past summer, the whole state--the whole nation--watched an otherwise mundane Anne Arundel County pond to see if the non-native northern snakehead fish would, as foretold, rise up on its fins, walk to nearby tributaries, and potentially dominate an unpredictable new food chain. This scramble to avert an environmental disaster in the making was caused by someone setting his pets free, but other disasters have occurred with more forethought.

There was the nutria, a muskratlike critter introduced to Eastern Shore marshes in 1943 to create a fur industry. Today, Maryland doesn't have a booming fur industry, but the state is burdened with a large rodent with an appetite for plant roots which has turned acres of Eastern Shore seagrass into mudflats prone to erosion. Then there is Maryland's population of seemingly serene white mute swans, originally descended from five birds owned by a private collector before a storm scattered them into the wild in 1962. Now, according to an article published by the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Service, the population of white mute swans, which love to pull up aquatic plants by their roots, is expected to reach 20,000 in eight years. Even the oyster disease MSX was thought to have reached the East Coast when someone planted infected oysters in the Delaware Bay.

Such debacles have inspired caution in Maryland. "Currently, we don't know enough about the non-native oyster to make a decision--it's that simple," says Stewart Harris, Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation lobbying group. And besides, the state is still pulling for good, old C. virginica to bounce back. "We haven't given up on the possibility that some degree of natural selection would occur," says Eric Schwaab, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, of the remaining oysters who have survived in the diseased bay. "We just haven't gotten there yet."

In the meantime, Maryland scientists are doing their best to help it along. At the Horn Point hatchery, researchers have been taking C. virginica oysters that have survived and breeding them. The scientists then take these young oysters and place them on oyster reefs throughout the bay in hopes of founding colonies of more disease-resistant oysters. But so far, researchers only have been able to produce an oyster that has a better chance of resisting Dermo and MSX for three years before dying. Basically, the new and improved C. virginica is good enough to be harvested for market but does not live long enough to reverse the bay's environmental tailspin or thrive without human intervention.

Since Don Meritt oversees the hatchery, he always faces the question of when. When does he think the researchers will come up with the magic bullet, the Super Oyster? It's an awkward question for a scientist, especially one who, as an undergraduate at Southern Maryland's St. Mary's College, once worked on the water himself.

"When are we going to find a cure for cancer?" he says. "Hopefully tomorrow, right?"

While he is a central part of the state's effort to kick-start evolution and come up with new hope for C. virginica, Meritt acknowledges that there is no rushing natural selection.

"Over time Mother Nature will produce a disease-resistant oyster," Meritt says. "The problem is time. We've had MSX and Dermo in the bay for over 50 years, and there is no natural resistance to the diseases out there yet. Is it something we're willing to wait another 50 years for?"

Not down in Virginia, where C. ariakensis research surges forward. And even the Maryland scientists working on the bay's oyster problem see advantages to keeping the research going. The problem with C. ariakensis, Roger Newell says, is that nobody has been able to determine categorically what adverse affects might come from introducing it. Speaking hypothetically, he asks, so what if C. ariakensis dominates the Chesapeake Bay at the expense of C. virginica?

"Is that a bad thing?" he asks. "Is anyone going to care if C. virginica is not here, because C. ariakensis is so similar in its biology. It's a bit like saying we don't have any more fox terriers, we just have short-hair terriers."

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences' Allen says, "The non-native oyster is not a very clear evil. . . . It's kind of a titillating potential."

This is not the first time Maryland and Virginia have found themselves at odds over the humble oyster. Occasional animosity goes back to Colonial times when the states feuded over the oyster-harvesting boundaries in the Potomac River, according to John Wenerstenn's book, The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. In the 1940s and '50s, tensions rose again when Maryland got serious in its enforcement of a no-dredging-in-territorial -waters policy against Virginia oyster hunters by dispatching a fleet of speedy power boats armed with machine guns to cruise the bay. (Turns out violators of the ban came from both states.)

Maryland and Virginia not only saw the boundaries of their common waterways differently, but also how to manage their fisheries. Virginia has a strong commercial aquaculture system, allowing companies to lease bay bottom to farm shellfish. Maryland treats the majority of its portion of the bay as free and open territory for licensed watermen and sports fishermen. A smidgen of Maryland's portion of the bay--about 7,500 acres under some 300 commercial leaseholders--has been taken out of the public domain; Webster says the majority of these Maryland lease holders don't bother planting oysters because of the diseases lurking in the water.

To the Maryland watermen, aquaculture might as well be a curse word. The almost folk-heroic status of the watermen, as documented in a cottage industry of books, articles, and documentaries, cannot be underestimated. Watermen are self-employed hunter and gatherers, earning their money from what they catch and then sell at the docks. Their roots here go back for generations--Dize has boat captains in his family back to the late 1600s. But can the state continue to support what is basically an antiquated harvesting of the bay? Allen points out that much of Maryland's current oyster resources are planted by the state itself, setting up a put-and-take system, "like stocking trout."

"When was the last time you went out and slaughtered some cow for yourself?" he asks. "We've got to face the fact the hunting and gathering of the seas, nationally, has reached the maximum yield."

In a way, the Chesapeake Bay has reached a true turning point, both for the oyster population and the industry that goes after it. Aquaculture specialist Webster says that using sterile C. ariakensis triploids, as Virginia proposes, might mostly benefit commercial hatcheries. The cost and expertise of running a hatchery would be too much for the waterman, so it is no surprise that some Maryland watermen are among the biggest supporters of eventually releasing fertile diploid C. ariakensis into the bay.

Up until now, scientists and state officials note, Maryland has been able to avoid the troublesome issue of introducing a non-native species. The state could plod along with its shrinking oyster harvests while hoping to come up with the magic native oyster. But with this year's drought guaranteeing extra salinity in the upper reaches of the Chesapeake, resulting in a probable bumper crop of Dermo and MSX, watermen can only hope to match last year's take of 148,000 bushels.

As Newell puts it, "Right now the oyster industry has really collapsed--that's the truth of the matter." And the demise of the Chesapeake oyster has finally linked Virginia and Maryland to the same fate. As Webster says, "We are trying to bail out the same boat right now."

In 2000, Maryland announced it would spend $25 million over the next 10 years on oyster restoration, focusing on hatching and propagating C. virginica. The state also has set aside 26 sanctuary areas that are off-limits to watermen in hopes of reclaiming 10 percent of the historically productive oyster bottom and creating a springboard should an improved C. virginica emerge. At the very least, Meritt says, the doomed Chesapeake oysters can offer their filtering services for three years before yielding to disease. Yet in the end, despite all the research and ongoing arguments, observers say the decision on using a non-native species in the Chesapeake will be as much a political decision as a scientific one.

It wasn't until the state legislature passed a bill this session calling for the study of native and non-native oysters that C. ariakensis even made it onto Maryland's agenda. Now that it's on the menu of options, there is more interest in the newcomer. Webster says that most of the remaining reluctance to address the Asian oyster comes from the upper levels of the Department of Natural Resources--"If you talk to the field biologists, they would like to work on it," he says.

Meanwhile, Del. Rudolph Cane, a Democrat who represents areas of Dorchester and Wicomico counties, sees the bill as a safety measure, pulling the scientific community and the administration together in the same direction to cautiously approach the question of using C. ariakensis, just in case.

For some, all these baby steps still amount to foot dragging. From where waterman Dize stands, the state has abdicated its role, allowing Virginia to take the lead and the risk. "I think the state's criminal in this," he says. "They have been given this big resource and managed it right down to nothing."

Dize has served on numerous policy-forging committees, running the gamut of fisheries from crabs to rockfish. He has worked with scientists looking at oyster fisheries worldwide and he, too, believes that state scientists would gladly consider the new oyster.

Still, other observers point out that state officials remain hesitant because they would probably be crucified if they OK'ed the introduction of a non-native organism that ruined the bay.

"At some point you take the best educated guess and say we're going to do this or not do this," Meritt says. "The problem is, if we're going to try this, some poor schmuck has to put his name on a piece of paper--'I give permission to do this.' If it goes wrong, guess who's going to get the blame?"

The National Academies (until recently known as the National Academy of Science) may soon offer a new viewpoint in the debate. The Academies, a congressional advisory body, have responded to the controversy by offering to come up with a report, due next summer, detailing how C. ariakensis might affect the Chesapeake Bay environment and its native oyster. The nonpartisan committee, composed of national experts including a hatchery owner from Washington State and an anthropologist from the University of Maryland, will also study the risks of releasing the non-native oyster as a triploid or a diploid in open waters, or not using it at all. The committee will, however, stop short of issuing a policy recommendation, say Susan Roberts, study director for the National Academies' committee on non-native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.

Whether sitting on a nationally convened panel or elbow deep in a research hatchery, scientists in Maryland and Virginia nonetheless find themselves facing an awkward situation. These scientists, most comfortable crunching data and sifting through facts, now have to estimate what they don't know and can't measure. Virginia and, to a lesser extent, Maryland eagerly await some sort of scientific determination on which to base the fate of C. ariakensis, the oyster fishery, the seafood processors and watermen who depend on it, and perhaps the Chesapeake Bay itself. And yet, even after years of study, Allen acknowledges, "We probably won't know all we need to know to predict what the risk of introducing [C. ariakensis] would be."

One late afternoon in early October, some of the heartier watermen have positioned themselves along the Kent Narrows to go after the last decent oysters in the fresher and less disease-racked regions of the northern bay. Lewis Carter returned with 12 bushels on his work boat, the Miss Yolanda. Here at the beginning of the second week of oyster season Carter says he doesn't expect to earn any more than he did last year.

"I tell you one thing about it," he allows. "Once you start doing it, it's something that gets in your blood and even if they're bad--the good and the bad--you don't want to do nothing else, really."

But on the same day, while Carter repaired a motorized pull, Dize's weathered hands nimbly knotted some twine into a string of worry beads before casting it in the water. As owner of R.D.S. Seafood, he sat watching the water, waiting to buy a boatload of crabs. The crabs may have fattened themselves up preparing to hibernate under the Chesapeake Bay mud, but the demand and the price slackened considerably after Labor Day. Finally, Rex Harrison and Bob Sweitzer putter up with 27 bushels and declare that these may be the last crabs this year. Normally, that would be another one of those seasonal signals that Dize should be readying the Kathryn for oyster season.

Instead, Dize is planning to turn his pride and joy into a charter boat. The tourism trade has become the afterlife for more than one skipjack. At first Dize does a good job downplaying his abandonment of a trade that for goes back four generations. Standing on a pier in his isolated corner of the Chesapeake, his waterman's life may seem historically romantic, but to him it's relentless work.

"It's like a buddy of mine says. . . . He's been sailing for five years and he's still looking for the romance," Dize says. "He hasn't seen [a skipjack] he loved yet."

Nice line. But listening to Dize talk about how the Kathryn "eats through the wind" or how a skipjack-caught oyster brings a premium price, it's clear that he is mightily attached to his lifelong trade.

"If the oyster ever comes back I'll be out there dredging oysters," he says finally. "All I have to do is put a set of winders on there and rig her. If it comes back again, we'll go oystering."

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