Chesapeake Bay's Quest for Eco-Balance and Sustainable Seafood

Chesapeake Bay's Quest for Eco-Balance and Sustainable Seafood

Updated September 28, 2010: Shortly after this blog went to press, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced draft regulations (click here for additional detail) requiring the jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to impose more stringent curbs on nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution.

The proposed rules would affect Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The EPA action is intended to improve the Chesapeake's water quality and its status as a habitat for fish and shellfish.


On Maryland's Eastern Shore, the future of the seafood business is intertwined with the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay.

According to Maryland's Department of Agriculture, the estimated value of Maryland's seafood industry is $700 million, and the bay provides a livelihood to some 6,600 watermen.

Oystering is a key aspect of the bay's heritage -- the early Native Americans called the bay "great shellfish growing water." But the Chesapeake's heritage of abundance has been threatened by decades of ecological imbalance.

Rebecca T. RuarkA cruise on the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark (pictured right) provides a powerful lesson in the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay.

According to the state of Maryland, skipjacks are the last working boats under sail in the United States. Skipjacks originated in the 1890s to dredge for Chesapeake Bay oysters. The single-mast, double-sailed vessels were prized for their ease of construction, stability and maneuverability in the bay's shallow waters.

The Chesapeake Bay skipjack fleet, which numbered 2,000 at its peak, declined to about 80 vessels in the 1950s, By  2002 -- the year in which the fleet was designated a national historic landmark -- there were only a dozen vessels left, the oldest of which is the Rebecca Ruark.

Captain Wade H. Murphy Jr.The Rebecca Ruark is captained by Wade H. Murphy Jr. (pictured right), a third-generation Maryland waterman. A cruise with Murphy is a riveting lesson in the challenges of conserving the Chesapeake Bay and its oyster population. While some conservation measures have been successful -- the ban on the use of DDT has brought the Chesapeake's osprey and eagle populations back from the brink of extinction over the past several decades -- the oyster population has been more difficult to restore.

Murphy estimates that the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population has declined from 15 million bushels in 1886 -- the year in which the Rebecca Ruark was built -- to about 100,000 bushels in 2009. (You can do the math, as Murphy has: In just 124 years, the bay's oyster population has dropped to two-thirds of one percent of its 1886 level.)

The precipitous fall in the oyster population has been attributed to numerous causes. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, un-regulated overfishing in the late 1800s and early 1900s was an initial driver, as have been outbreaks of parasitic infections in recent decades. Murphy traces the decline to three other factors: global warming, the effects of upstream dams, and the continuing discharge of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay.

Murphy's family has been oystering in the Chesapeake Bay since the late 19th century and has observed first-hand the effects of global warming, changing salinity and pollution.


According to Murphy's late father, Wade Murphy Sr., who was born in 1900, the bay froze over every January and February until approximately 1940. Since the '40s, the bay has frozen in only one winter -- the winter of 1978. The winter freeze was necessary to kill off harmful bacteria in the bay and the rivers that feed it. Without the freeze, the oyster population has been decimated by disease.

According to Murphy, increasing salinity in the bay has also contributed to the drop in the oyster population, as has pollution from the rivers that feed the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake Bay, he says, is growing saltier due to the construction of dams upstream, limiting the amounts of snowmelt available to flush the bay. Oysters are ill-equipped to deal with the changing salinity of the bay, in Murphy's judgment. Upstream pollutants also discharge into the bay, further decimating the oyster population. "The problem is a people problem," Murphy concludes.Rebecca T. Ruark Mast

An especially sad irony is that the destruction of the Chesapeake's oyster population itself sets back efforts to cleanse the bay. Murphy points out that a single oyster filters 40 to 50 gallons of water a day -- the Chesapeake's 1886 oyster population was sufficient to clean the bay in approximately two days. The dwindling of the oyster population deprives the bay of its natural filtration mechanism.

What's the solution?

The states of Maryland and Virginia have long limited oyster dredging in the Chesapeake Bay, in an effort to rebuild oyster populations. Additional efforts undertaken in Maryland have included the development of hatcheries, seed planting and the building of new oyster reefs.

The U.S. government, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have joined Maryland, Virginia and other state and non-governmental partners including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (whose headquarters has been certified LEED-Platinum), in efforts to clean and restore the bay.

Happily, funding for native oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay has increased substantially, from $26,000 in 1997 to over $5 million in 2006, reports Cory Vanderpool, a Ph.D candidate in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and executive director of the Greenlink Alliance.

The restoration of the Chesapeake's oyster population can't come fast enough for Murphy and his fellow watermen. With the decline of the oyster industry, Murphy now earns his living from tourism -- in addition to chartering sails on the Rebecca Ruark, he can take you crabbing or fishing for Maryland rockfish on the Miss Kim.  But he'll be the first to tell you that he'd rather be oystering the Chesapeake Bay, as his father and grandfather did before him.

Leanne Tobias is founder and managing principal of Malachite LLC, an advisory firm that specializes in the development, leasing, management, financing and certification of sustainable or green real estate on a global basis. You can get in touch with Leanne at this link.


Top image CC licensed by Flickr user
T o n y. Photo of the Rebecca T. Ruark courtesy of Skipjack.org. All other images courtesy of Leanne Tobias.