Chesapeake Bay Oysters Making a Comeback

Published March 14, 2011

The Chesapeake Bay oyster population is making a comeback. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced the number of native baby oysters in Chesapeake Bay is at its highest level since 1997. Wildlife groups say recovery is important, as Chesapeake Bay oyster populations languish at only 1 percent of historic levels.

Coming Back from the Brink
Since 1939, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its predecessor agencies have monitored the status of the state’s oyster population via annual field surveys. “The Survey tracks three critical components of the population: Spatfall Intensity, which measures reproduction levels [known as recruitment] and offers a window into future population levels; disease infection levels; and annual mortality rates of oysters,” DNR Senior Communications Manager Josh Davidsburgh told ECN.

“Encouraging news for the beleaguered oyster is that the frequency and intensity of diseases remains low. Of the two diseases that have devastated populations for decades, Dermot–although still widely distributed—remains below the long-term average for the eighth consecutive year, and MSX appears to again be in retreat after an advance in 2009.”

More Sanctuaries Created
In 2010, Maryland adopted regulations to implement O’Malley’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan. The plan increased Maryland’s network of oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of the state’s remaining quality habitat, increased areas open to leasing for oyster aquaculture, established a $2.2 million financial assistance program for aquaculture interests, and maintained 76 percent of the Bay’s remaining quality oyster habitat as a “more targeted, sustainable, and scientifically managed” public oyster fishery.

Since autumn 2010, 26 Marylanders have applied for 35 new leases to grow oysters, and the state has received 27 applications for more than $2 million in available funding for new and expanding aquaculture businesses.

“Even as our population stood at 1 percent of historic levels, we did not give up . . . and we now have exciting new evidence that—like our blue crab—our native oyster has not given up either,” said O’Malley in a press statement. “Moving forward, it is our responsibility to strengthen our restoration commitment, our enforcement actions, and our investment to further to protect our future broodstock.”

Private Sector Efforts Successful
“Preservation of natural resources doesn’t always require a regulation. The resurgence of the oyster population in Chesapeake Bay is also a result of volunteers banding together and working toward improving the aqua-life on the bay,” said Jeffrey Ferguson, an advisory board member of the Maryland-based Harbour League. “Each of those who live on the water were asked if they would be willing to ‘nurse’ a cage of baby oysters during the winter and hang the cages from their docks, periodically shaking them and returning them to their hanging posts.”

“Fisheries have historically been regulated through ‘command-and-control’ policies such as limits on the number of hours that fishing is permitted, the type of gear allowed, and other inputs,” said Sylvia Brandt, an associate professor in the department of resource economics at the University of Massachusetts. “The effect of ‘command-and-control’ regulation of fisheries has been serious economic inefficiencies, safety hazards, detriments to the ecosystem, and failure to protect marine resources.

“Those results have provoked interest in the use of tradable property rights—known in fisheries as individual transferable quotas (ITQs)—to regulate marine resources. Initial research into the adoption of ITQs suggests the change dramatically boosts productivity,” Brandt explained.

Signifying ‘Legal Failure’
Roy Cordato, vice president for research at the John Locke Foundation, agrees, saying enforcement of property rights is essential.

“Pollution or ‘tragedy of the commons’ problems are not about harming the environment per se but about human conflict over the use of physical resources such as oceans,” Cordato said.

“The only practical solution to conflicts that arise over the economic aspects of these otherwise noneconomic resources is clearly defined and enforced property rights,” Cordato explained. “Thus the perspective on [such] problems should shift from one of ‘market failure,’ where the free market is seen as failing to generate an efficient outcome, to legal failure, where the market process is prevented from proceeding efficiently because the necessary institutional framework—clearly defined and enforced property rights—is not in place.”

D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) is a Milwaukee-based economist.