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Editorial: A 10-billion-oyster gift to the Chesapeake

Editorial: A 10-billion-oyster gift to the Chesapeake

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TEN BILLION OYSTERS. What a difference they could make in the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Whether you consider them a delicacy or disgusting, there is more to oysters than what meets the mouth. Oysters are a particulate vacuum cleaner for whatever body of water they're in, as each adult oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day.

So consider how much water 10 billion oysters planted in the Chesapeake Bay could clean. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 31 other organizations, nonprofit groups and growers—each of whom share the view that a healthy bay is also a commercially prosperous bay—have joined the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance. The ambitious goal of this consortium is to plant 10 billion oysters in the bay and its tributaries by 2025.

That also happens to be the target date for the jurisdictions that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed to meet the pollution-reduction targets to which they have committed themselves to achieving. That means nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution will have been sufficiently reduced by then to get the bay and its tributaries off the Clean Water Act's "Impaired Waters" list. These oysters will help the cause.

The CBF and other bay advocacy and research organizations know from experience that pursuing goals based on wishful thinking is a waste of time and money. They won't let this be one of those.

With Virginia partners such as Friends of the Rappahannock, the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, and the Rappahannock Oyster Co., the initiative is tapping a wealth of knowledge and industry know-how. Thanks to Chesapeake Bay Program efforts and the burgeoning aquaculture industry, the planting and nurturing of oysters is already an ongoing and expanding process.

As Ryan Croxton, aquaculturist and co-owner of the Rappahannock Oyster Co., suggests, "There is such a [bay oyster] deficit. We are all focused on getting more oysters into the water."

That's not to say the goal of 10 billion oysters isn't daunting. But given the progress of the bay cleanup since EPA oversight began in 2010—all but one state met its 2017 interim pollution-reduction targets—there is an understanding of what is achievable and what isn't.

Bay oysters, or Crassostrea virginica, were so plentiful when Capt. John Smith explored the Chesapeake in the 17th century that there was a seemingly endless supply. But rampant overfishing in the 19th and 20th centuries proved that not to be the case. Their numbers severely diminished and their habitat polluted and getting warmer, many remaining bay oysters fell victim to the parasitic diseases Dermo and MSX. Though the parasites still exist, researchers have learned how to make oysters more resistant to them.

The cost of the depleted oyster population to local economies is estimated to be more than $4 billion over the last 30 years. Returning the bay oyster to prominence is a key part of the pledge that the investment made to save the bay will pay dividends in jobs and commercial, recreational and tourism opportunities.

In fact, it already is. With the growth of aquaculture, oysters are now available year-'round—no need to limit consumption to the months with "Rs" in them. The development of the triploid oyster means bigger, fatter bay oysters for restaurants to offer throughout the year. 

The commitment to planting 10 billion oysters by 2025 is an exciting prospect for both the bay's health and its commercial viability. Not only will the oysters improve water quality by filtering out algae and particulate matter, they will also help return the bay to its rightful place as a world-renowned shellfish producer.

opinion@freelancestar.com

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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