The Great Seal of Maryland shows a farmer on the left and a fisherman on the right. Since the Bay and its tributaries bisect Maryland’s land masses, aquaculture has been a major part of our state’s history.
Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, shellfish and even plants and refers to the cultivation of both marine and freshwater species. Managing and improving the resource in tidewater areas is a challenge, because it takes place in a “public commons.” No one owns it and it is there for the common use and benefit of everyone.
And what a wonderful resource the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are! In the early 17th century, Captain John Smith had reported that oysters “lay as thick as stones.” At one point, Smith and his men were surrounded by schools of fish so plentiful that they attempted to catch them with frying pans!
In a 2009 study, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the Bay supports 34,000 jobs and $3.39 billion in sales annually in Maryland and Virginia.
Still, we know that the resource has been diminished by pollution and overfishing. Since we all have access to the Bay, we all have had the ability to abuse it and reduce its bounty. Shad were fished almost to extinction in the early 20th century. Rockfish and crab populations have experienced major fluctuations in numbers over the last 20 years, mainly due to overfishing.
Oyster populations have suffered huge losses, due to overfishing, low-oxygen levels in the water, and disease. Watermen have lost billions of dollars in income since the 1980s. At that time, watermen were catching around two million bushels per year. Now the annual harvest in Maryland is around 100,000 to 200,000 bushels.
There is some renewed hope. Last year, the oyster survival rate was the highest in 25 years, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, and this fall, Maryland partners planted more than 600 million oysters.
Successful oyster population recovery is essential to the full recovery of the bay. The bivalves filter water, create aquatic reefs, and feed countless watershed inhabitants. Each oyster filters approximately 50 gallons of water per day.
The seafood industry is benefiting from the buy local food movement. More customers want to know where their food is coming from and that they are supporting local watermen. Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC) has prepared the Southern Maryland Meats and Seafood Guide to help customers in finding retail outlets for local seafood. This spring, SMADC held a Regional Oyster Aquaculture Workshop to assist watermen with applying for a shellfish lease, looking for alternative culch opportunities, financing for growers, and harvesting regulations.
However, the success of the seafood industry will depend on how we deal with overfishing and pollution from the land. In the last hundred years, we have seen Bay resources depleted. In the next hundred years, we could see the end of commercial seafood harvesting or we could see it recover and create thousands of jobs and local food resources. It is time for us to be better stewards of our public commons, including the Bay.