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Series chronicles Bay's pioneering oyster farmers

For those who love oysters - and if we want to save the Chesapeake Bay, we should all care about these shellfish with their gooey grey insides - the Bay Journal has published a terrific series about the push to bring them back by "farming" them.

Time was when folks the world over associated the Chesapeake with oysters. Watermen in Maryland and Virginia hauled in millions upon millions of bushels of the bivalves every year, and eateries across the nation featured what was then the bay's signature seafood on their menus.

Oysters have fallen on hard times since then, as has the bay. Overharvesting in those seeming days of plenty, habitat loss and now diseases peculiar to the bivalves have ravaged the Chesapeake's population and decimated a once-thriving fishing industry. Their decline has hurt the bay, because oysters filter the water and helped keep it clean.  Many believe replenishing the bay's oysters, with their filtering capacity, is key to restoring the bay.

So now, after a decades-long slump, Maryland is trying to reverse the oyster's fortunes.  Breaking from a longstanding focus on sustaining the state's traditional wild fishery, officials have set aside large areas of the bay and its rivers as sanctuaries, putting them off limits to commercial harvest and replanting them with hatchery-reared oysters.  The hope is they'll survive the lingering diseases and thrive - and help clean up the bay's water quality. 

At the same time, the state is offering to help the state's watermen shift into raising their own bivalves, rather than continuing to rely on the remaining public waters to make a living. Aquaculture is a brave new world for them, fraught with challenges and risks, but not a completely untested path, as neighboring Virginia has long encouraged private oyster cultivation in its portion of the bay.

A handfull of pioneers have taken the plunge, and the Journal series just completed by Rona Kobell recounts the struggles and successes they've had.   To read the first two parts, go here and here.

As someone who lives for eating oysters, I'm grateful she's told their tales - and just a little jealous that she found a way to spend so much time around my favorite food.   Her series is well worth the read, and food for thought, even if oysters are not your idea of a tasty meal.  Perhaps the efforts of hardy individuals like these, when enough follow their lead, can make a difference in bringing back oysters - and the bay.

(Oysters grow in floats at Choptank Oyster Co. in Cambridge.  2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett) 

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