This month another oyster season has opened across the Chesapeake, and yet another record-low harvest is almost certain.

Maryland officials, meanwhile, continue struggling to find politically acceptable ways to conserve what remains. It is already too late for this winter.


If you wonder how far the downward spiral can proceed before everyone agrees it is time to give the oysters a break, consider what happened last month in Virginia -- but brace yourself.

It is hard to imagine a more dire situation than the one that faced the seven members of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) who met Sept. 28 in Newport News. Oyster harvests that surpassed 4 million bushels during the 1950s had slumped to 46,000 bushels last year. Maryland's record low last year was huge by comparison: 120,000 bushels.


The situation for Virginia's bay watermen is even more desperate than the 46,000-bushel figure suggests. They caught 16,000 bushels last year; the rest came from private plantings, more common in Virginia than Maryland.

Virtually all the oysters came from an area 20 miles upstream from the mouth of the James River. The water there is fresh enough to thwart diseases that have ravaged shellfish throughout the bay. The few thousand acres are all that is left, about 2 percent, of a quarter-million acres of once-productive public oyster bottom in the Virginia Chesapeake.

The VMRC's staff, strongly supported by the state's scientific community, proposed closing the James this year to harvesting market-sized oysters. Watermen could have continued to make some money tonging up seed -- baby oysters -- for moving to private oyster grounds; but taking more large oysters from their last refuge risked a collapse of the brood stock supporting the industry, the experts agreed.

Fewer than 500 licensed oystermen remain in Virginia, and less than half are active anymore in the bay. (The state has a modest oyster industry on its seaside, too). But

they packed the VMRC hearing, and recited familiar dogma: that disease will get the oysters if harvesting doesn't.

A more intriguing argument came from oyster packers. Already, about 95 percent of the "fresh Virginia" oysters they sell actually come from outside the Chesapeake and are shucked or re-packaged -- all quite legal. The packers feared they might not retain the illusion of a Virginia or Chesapeake trademark if Virginia were perceived as shutting down its oystering.

But the hearing turned when Delegate Tayloe Murphy, whose Northern Neck district includes numerous seafood interests, and who faces re-election, pleaded with the commission not to act in haste. Wait until the end of the year, he said, when a legislative study of thestate's shellfish industry, including ways watermen might be compensated for losses, will be complete.

The tiebreaker vote came down to Commissioner Tim Hayes, and those favoring a closure of oystering figured they could count on him. But he successfully pushed for a compromise. It limits watermen to an overall total of only 6,000 bushels through Dec. 31, the first half of the season, after which closing the season can be re-considered.


In reality this may not mean much conservation at all, according to a number of oyster experts in Virginia. They say the 6,000-bushel ceiling is not far below what the catch would have been anyway. And it will be difficult to stop tongers who want to cheat the quota by lumping market-sized oysters with their catches of seed.

At the VMRC hearing, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation backed closure. "It was hard to believe we were sitting there, still arguing, over 6,000 bushels of oysters," says Bill Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the foundation.

It is revealing that neither of the key players in Virginia's flawed compromise fits standard definitions of environmental black .


Tim Hayes is an environmental lawyer and former Virginia director of the Environmental Defense Fund, a national group. "I walked in there feeling we really needed a moratorium," he said this week in an interview. Even now, he concedes that "the staff report left no doubt that stocks [of oysters] are down to such a critical level that it's very risky to keep on harvesting."

So why did he make what he calls "the hardest vote in my seven years here" the way he did?


"Quite frankly, I was trying to find something that would do some good for the oysters and not reject Tayloe's request."

He describes Mr. Murphy, when it comes to the bay, as "the best." He would get no argument from me or any environmentalists I know. Mr. Murphy is a stalwart of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, composed of environmentally concerned legislators from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

He says he had not planned to get involved in the issue initially, but was "put in the middle of it" during public hearings when VMRC staff told angry watermen that compensation for loss of work was a problem for their local delegate to solve.

"I would hate to see the commercial watermen die out," Mr. Murphy says. "It's an economic issue, certainly, but it's more; fiberglass boats with their flying bridges are not what's in our art and our folklore on the bay . . ."

But for all of Mr. Hayes' and Mr. Murphy's virtues, Virginia's oysters seem likely to take another hit at a time when they clearly are on the brink of collapse.

As for the watermen's arguments that disease is the only problem, "they believe what they say, believe it in their hearts, and the commission considers them experts," says Jim Wesson, the VMRC's oyster repletion specialist.


"But they are experts in harvesting, not managing," he adds. "The only reason there are still oysters there in the James is they are the ones not affected by disease. Harvesting is the major reason those oysters are declining."

Mr. Wesson has a unique viewpoint. He has a Ph.D in wildlife ecology -- and is a former president of the Virginia Working Watermen's Association. (You'd never guess it, the way watermen vilify him.)

The proposal to shut down oystering, he says, "was really about rebuilding." Virginia is experimenting with artificial oyster reefs and other measures. "But we have to have something left from which to rebuild," he says.

In Maryland Monday, an ongoing "Oyster Round Table" will meet again after an often frustrating summer of seeking to balance conservation and the desires of oystermen. Will it reach a solution that is more than mere tinkering with the problem? How low would the Maryland oyster harvest have to go? Could you even imagine 6,000 bushels?