Monday, July 25, 2005

Should the Eastern Oyster be on the Endangered Species List? It's Worth Considering

"I think I like best the oysters from Long Island Sound," M.F.K. Fisher wrote in 1941. My experience is not as wide and varied as hers but I like best the oysters from the Sound too, particularly a dozen I ate last summer during a brief visit to Fishers Island. Long Island Sound oysters are indisputably delicious -- when you can find them. And therein lies the problem. The Sound's oyster industry is dependent on a body of water that is as heavily urbanized as any in the world, and the oysters themselves are so sensitive to environmental degradation that they can easily become vectors of frightening illnesses that bring to mind the wisdom not of M.F.K. Fisher but of Hemingway, who remarked, "I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead."

But with the effects of environmental degradation being so dramatic, do we need another threat to Crassostrea virginica, the eastern oyster? A former U.S. Fisheries Service official in Maryland says no. He is arguing that if Maryland gets its way and introduces the exotic Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, into Chesapeake Bay, it might in fact lead to the eastern oyster's extinction, which would give another meaning entirely to Hemingway's "I want my food dead."

The former official, Wolf-Dieter N. Busch, has petitioned the federal government to list the eastern oyster as a threatened or endangered species. Oyster growers in the Long Island Sound area, as well as environmentalists such as Soundkeeper Terry Backer and Art Glowka, one of the founders of Riverkeeper, say Busch's idea is terrible. They say that oysters, particularly in the Sound, don't need federal protections that might lead to limits on how many can be harvested.

And it is true that one aspect of Busch's petition is specious, namely his argument that evidence of the oyster's troubles can be found in the fact that the annual oyster harvest in the eastern U.S. is only two percent of what it was at its peak, in the late 1800s. That peak was in fact an unsustainable over harvest, and saying that oysters are endangered because we're not harvesting as many as when we were harvesting too many is a weak argument.

Nevertheless, I think Busch has some valid points. Here's what his petition says:

Whereas historically the oyster created 'high-rise reefs' ... (up to 50 ft. high), washed by clean nutritious waters of various levels of salinity, much of the current remnant stock is trying to survive in single layers, often in muck ..., washed by dirty water, frequently low in oxygen, and with little variations in salinity. These unsuitable conditions have encouraged low survival of their wild progeny or hatchery seedlings due to excessive mortality caused by diseases, predation, siltation and, in some micro habitats, periodic low levels of oxygen. ...

The most critical new concern is the potential introduction of the exotic Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis. Accidental or purposeful introduction of exotic species have generally caused many more problems than benefits and usually can not be reversed. In this specific case, the introduction of the Asian oyster may result in the extinction of the eastern oyster from competition and hybridization.

Art Glowka and others know well the problems that exotic species, particularly the Asian shore crab, have caused. It does not seem far-fetched at all to suppose that the Asian oyster could gradually replace the eastern oyster. People in the oyster business, such as Jimmy and Norm Bloom, who work out of Norwalk, and Karen Rivara, of Southold, might not care -- a marketable oyster is, after all, a marketable oyster.

But even if federal fisheries officials decide not to declare the eastern oyster endangered, Busch's petition offers a good opportunity to consider and oppose Maryland's plan to introduce an exotic species into a not-too-distant estuary.

My reason is M.F.K. Fisher's: I think I like best the oysters from Long Island Sound -- Crassosteria virginica, that is, not Crassosteria ariakensis.


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