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Air Date: Week of

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Oysters have long been the cornerstone of the Chesapeake Bay. They keep the bay clean and help support the local seafood industry. But overharvesting, habittat destruction and disease have caused the oyster population to decline dramatically from its harvest highs of the last century. A multimillion dollar restoration project whose goal is to increase the oyster population in the Chesapeake began this year. Tom Lalley reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America, and its' in trouble. Perhaps the clearest warning comes from the sharp decline in oysters. Oysters help keep the bay clean and they feed the ecosystem, including humans. But today, the oyster catch is almost down to nothing, to just two percent of its glory days of 100 years ago. Over harvesting, habitat destruction, and disease are to blame. Now a multimillion dollar program is trying to restore the oyster population in the Chesapeake. And some hope the next decade could see oyster populations grow tenfold. Tom Lalley has this report from Virginia.

(Ambient voices. A boat engine starts up)

LALLEY: Most people associate the Chesapeake with crabs, not oysters. But as recently as the 1970s, oysters were the dominant species and industry of the bay. Today the oyster is just hanging on. The decline has had a devastating effect on the people who depend on the bay.

BARD: Fish was plentiful. Oysters were plentiful and the crab were plentiful.

LALLEY: Larry Bard is a waterman from Tangier Island, Virginia.

BARD: It was a year-round job. I mean, it was seasonal but you went from one to the other, you know. Crabbing was over, you went to oyster, and right on through the cycles, through the winter. And it was always a job.

LALLEY: These days, Bard and other watermen like him are lucky to work five months out of the year. That's why he's here on this boat, loaded with dignitaries rather than seafood. The gathering includes politicians and the top environmental officials from Virginia. They're here to see the centerpiece of the oyster recovery effort, an artificial reef in the Rappahannock River just off the bay. The boat stops about 100 yards from shore. Rob Brumbaugh is a fisheries biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Society. He points out the thousand-foot reef just under the surface of the water.

BRUMBAUGH: If we drift a little closer, what you'll see is actually an oyster reef that actually sticks up off the bottom of the bay. And that's the way oyster reefs used to look three and four hundred years ago. They were very much like coral reefs in tropical waters. And they were formed by oysters, one generation after another settling on each other and accumulating over thousands of years.

LALLEY: Along with oysters, the reefs were home to as many as 300 other species, like crabs and sea bass. Today there are virtually no natural reefs left. What over-harvesting didn't take, shell mining did. Shells can be used to make concrete. At one time, reefs were mined without even removing the oysters.

TRACY: It used to be, when Captain John Smith was here you could walk across the Chesapeake Bay on these oyster reefs. And imagine the water quality then. They said you could look down 40 feet and see your anchor, and you can't now. You're looking right at it and you can't see.

LALLEY: Dennis Tracy is the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Tracy has a particular interest in oyster recovery. He's responsible for keeping the state's water clean.

TRACY: Virginia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years on removing nutrients from the Chesapeake Bay. One thing about these oysters in the Chesapeake Bay is they filter better than most mechanical systems that we have. So they clean up the bay just by being here, and the more the merrier.

LALLEY: But oyster recovery will take money, as much as $100 million dollars over the next ten years. Much of that money is expected to come from Congress, which hasn't yet committed to spend it. Recovery will also depend on a multimillion overall bay recovery effort that would upgrade sewage treatment plants and reduce farm and urban runoff. Funding for that plan is uncertain. Cuts to the program are proposed in the Bush administration's budget. That's why Republican U.S. Senator John Warner is here, showing his support for the project by dumping a few ceremonial buckets of oyster shells over the side of the boat.

VOICE: Senator Warner, tell us what you're doing here.

WARNER: We're seeding the oyster beds.

(Engines, clanking)

LALLEY: The real reseeding work is underway just across the Rappahannock [phonetic spelling], where about 75 tons of oysters is being forced overboard by two high-powered hoses. The water pressure is enough to disperse the shells over the reef. This reef is one of 200 that will be built, seeded with farm-raised oysters, and made off-limits to harvesting. John Paul Woodly is Virginia's Secretary of Natural Resources. He says the idea is that these reefs will produce healthy oysters that will seed surrounding reefs where harvesting will be allowed.

WOODLY: Because of the oysters' inability to move and the need for male and female oysters to be in proximity, the concept is to have the reefs as sanctuaries so that those oysters that survive and therefore show resistance to the diseases will continue unmolested to breed, and to populate the bay over time.

LALLEY: Woodly is confident the sanctuaries will be respected. Around the bay, oyster recovery is strongly supported. More than 5,000 volunteers have helped out in the effort, and millions of private sector dollars have been raised. Jay Taylor is a member of the Norfolk Rotary Club, which has raised nearly $100,000 for oyster recovery.

TAYLOR: I don't know what it is about the oyster. As ugly as that little thing is, that it seems to generate such a heartfelt interest in environmental protection and restoration. It's become a kind of symbol. And it's a good thing it did, because it's so fundamental to the health of the environment.

(Engines up and over, fade to ambient conversations)

LALLEY: Back on the dock, the Chesapeake Bay Society's Rob Brumbaugh says the Rotary Club's money is well spent. He calls oyster recovery the biggest bang for the buck.

BRUMBAUGH: If you think about what a single oyster can do, a single oyster that's three inches long, about the size that you'd see on a plate with some cocktail sauce and a lemon, filters 50 gallons of water in a single day. So, one oyster. And 130 years ago it was estimated that they could filter the bay in about three to five days or three to six days. So when you think of it in terms of both the fishery and the economic return that we get, the filtering ability and the water quality improvement and then the habitat, it's just hands-down, it's really the most important resource in the bay to be devoting energy and time and, frankly, money to.

MAN 1: Stick around. I understand there are some oysters.

MAN 2: Oh, good, I was hoping.

LALLEY: Before the party breaks up, oysters on the half-shell are served. Eating oysters was once a common experience for people around the bay, but plummeting oyster numbers have put many processors out of business. The few hanging on have had to change the way they operate.


LALLEY: Kellum Seafood is one of several companies that now returns all their shells to the bay instead of selling them for concrete. They even bought a boat specially made for seeding oyster reefs. The shells are loaded by a conveyor belt that carries them from a massive, 60-foot-high pile of shells. Tommy Kellum is the vice president and grandson of the company's founder.

KELLUM: Nineteen-eighty-eight, there were ten processing facilities that processed oysters on this tributary we're on, and right now there are only three. The seventies was a heyday. There were probably as many as five tractor trailers of oysters going away from this plant a day. And we're down to about three to four a week now.

LALLEY: It may take years before Kellum gets back to peak production. But preliminary results from the oyster recovery effort are encouraging. Twenty miles north of the Rappahannock is the comparatively smaller Great Wicomico River. Oyster numbers around a pilot reef built a few years ago there showed an increase of nearly 600 percent the year after it was seeded. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Lalley in Weems, Virginia.



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