Archive for January, 2010

Let’s Talk About Oysters

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Recent news of a noisy hearing on a proposed oyster law brings back memories of past debates over oysters.  I remember Governor Harry Hughes telling me once of hearings where oystermen stood in the hearing room with their long sharp hand tongs at their sides.  A rather threatening image.

My uncle’s father was an oysterman.  I remember his deadrise workboat, always crisp white, swinging from a stake.  As kids we could mess around with the other skiffs and rowboats, but we weren’t allowed near that boat.  That boat was his workplace, his livelihood – at least until oyster diseases finally brought down the fishery in his area and it was hardly worth going out for oysters any more.

His name was Mr. Minor.  He was a gentle man, with that country wisdom you can’t learn in a schoolroom.  He’s been gone a long time now, but I wonder what he would think about today’s debates over oysters.

A quiet man, I don’t think he would like the tone.  Evidently when one of the state resource manager was testifying at the recent oyster hearing, people jeered.  Someone started making coo-coo bird sounds.  The oyster debate has gotten personal.  It may get worse.

There’s a reason people are tense.  These are tough times.  Watermen in particular have never been rich, at least not in financial terms.  Their wealth comes from family, from what they know about the water, from hard work.  It comes from the satisfaction that derives from independence, from working for themselves and making it on their own.

We need to find a balance between honoring that independence and protecting the public good – in this case the public oyster bars that belong to all of us.  We have to find a way to balance these values if we’re going to live in a civil society.

It’s too bad that public hearings often bring out the worst in people.  Attitudes get hardened.  Frustration turns to ridicule.  Ridicule leads to anger.

Is there a place for a better dialogue?  Or will it all come down to power politics in the end? I think we all deserve something better.

Who Killed the Bay’s Oysters?

Friday, January 15th, 2010

It seems that there’s a broad misunderstanding about what’s happened to the Bay’s native oyster.

I encountered an example of this recently when I was on the West Coast.  I was grilling Pacific coast oysters with my son and his wife, and speaking with one of my daughter-in-law’s cousins (turns out that he’s the son of TV personality John Tesh).  As the subject turned to comparing Chesapeake oysters with Pacific ones, he said, “Oh yes, I read that Chesapeake Bay oysters have all been killed by pollution.”

That’s a wide perception, both here and across the country.  That the Bay’s native oysters have been killed off by pollution.

Filmmaker Michael Fincham helps to dispel that assumption in a new film entitled, “Who Killed Crassostrea virginica?” Near the beginning of the movie, Fincham airs an interview clip with William Hargis, the former director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  Hargis, who died in 2008, headed up VIMS in the late 1950s at a critical time for the Bay’s oyster population.  “Yes, pollution is a problem,” Hargis says, leaning toward the camera, “but it’s NOT what killed the oysters.”

Fincham does a great job of carefully laying out the backdrop for this story.  He follows the Bay’s oldest skipjack captain, Art Daniels, who recalls when he first began to follow the oyster as a boy.  He trails researchers like Dr. Ken Paynter as they dive on oyster bars, trying to see what’s going on now.  And most importantly, he goes back to the late 1950s, when all the oysters started to die.

It’s an amazing story.

There is a story here, too, about Michael Fincham.  He’s been writing about the Bay and producing films for Maryland Sea Grant for 30 years.  During the 1980s he produced a documentary entitled, “Chesapeake: The Twilight Estuary.”  That film told the story of the disappearance of underwater grasses in the Bay.  At the time, many thought that “toxic pollution” (from herbicides or big industry) was the culprit.  As it turned out, it wasn’t.  “The Twilight Estuary” describes how scientists uncovered the real killer of Bay grasses:  nutrients — from farm fields, from waste treatment plants, from septic tanks and stormwater runoff.  That’s common knowledge now, but it wasn’t then.

Fincham went on to produce other award-winning films.  “Watershed for the Chesapeake,” about the launching of the regionwide Bay restoration effort.  “Alien Ocean,” about the threat of invasive species.  “The Pfiesteria Files,”  about the appearance of a strange and still mysterious phenomenon blamed for fish kills, illness, and memory loss.  (That film won a regional Emmy Award and a first place award at the New York Film Festival.)

His new film on oysters promises to be just as informative and just as entertaining.  “Who Killed Crassostrea virginica?” will premiere at the Annapolis Maritime Museum on January 21, 2010.

A Walk in the Woods

Monday, January 11th, 2010

It was a great pleasure to take a walk in the woods with people like Nancy Ailes of the Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust and Keith Eshleman of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.  I tried to give a sense of their life’s work in the article “Saving Trees for the Forest.”

Nancy Ailes is downright inspirational.  She doesn’t like being credited with what she’s done in the Cacapon watershed — so far saving 10,000 acres from development.  She prefers to give credit to the farmers and landowners who’ve established conservation easements on their land.  And it’s true that Mike Rudolf and other landowners who’ve taken this step are heroes.  On the other hand, one can imagine that without her dedication, her sincerity, her persistence, that number of acres may never have been placed under conservation easement.

Another surprise came up while working on this issue — the plight of a small patch of woods on the College Park campus called the “wooded hillock.”  Environmental researchers like Stephen Prince in the Department of Geography put me in touch with this debate, which surrounds one of the University’s last remaining woodlots along busy University Boulevard.  Campus officials want to cut down almost half the woods to move some facilities away from Route 1, an area picked for more upscale development.  I describe the conflict briefly in “A View from Above.”

Just after we went to press, the faculty senate at the University of Maryland, College Park voted to preserve the “wooded hillock.”  Now apparently the ball is in the court of campus officials.  On the one hand they have to figure out where to put a parking lot and some maintenance facilities; on the other hand they have committed to preserving the campus’s natural environment and what remains of its trees.  Perhaps there are those charged with facilities management who can come up with some creative solutions.

For the sake of the trees, I hope so.

An update (March 18, 2010):  Since I wrote this blog, the College Park campus has been in negotiations to purchase the parcel along Route 1 used by the Washington Post as a printing facility.  The University would use the parcel for their own maintenance facilities and parking lots.  If this goes through, it will prove a creative solution to a challenging issue — and the trees of the wooded hillock will be spared.

The Population Puzzle

Friday, January 8th, 2010

In a recent chat with Bay author Tom Horton, he reinforced a point he’d made to me last summer.  That if he were to write his report now on overpopulation in the Bay region (Growing, Growing, Gone), he would focus less on population and more on our culture’s addiction to “growth” — not only more people, but more of everything.  More money, more cars, more houses, more highways, more gadgets.  More things.

He makes a good point.  In his Eastern Shore drawl he argues that we often forget the rewards of being better, not bigger.  Studies of happiness, he notes, often show that while people need enough money to meet basic needs, “wealth” and the ownership of material goods don’t always correlate with a sense of satisfaction, of well-being.

In Chesapeake country, it sometimes seems that money can cause as many environmental problems as it solves.  Where a modest summerhouse once graced a rural riverbank, one now finds a mini-mansion.  Perhaps even a row of mini-mansions — with piers, cars, bright lights, super-green lawns right down to the water’s edge.  Our impacts on the landscape are bigger now, because we can afford more.

Horton is a big fan of living leaner.  But at the same time, his paper on population makes another sobering point.  While we can go a long way toward reducing our footprint on the earth — by reducing our energy demands, by driving less and walking more, by eating lower on the food chain — at some point absolute numbers will overtake us.

This is especially true if we want to preserve open space and natural areas.  If we want secluded marshes and riverside forests to remain undeveloped, if we want the Bay’s ecosystem to remain in the same shape we remember from the 1950s.

Worldwide, we need to balance human population growth with our demands on this planet we call Earth.

The United Nations posits three possible scenarios for global population, from high to low.  Of course unpredictable things could happen as well.  We could witness a world war.  We could be hit by an asteroid. We could be visited by plague or famine.  All of these things have happened before.  At some level, the trajectory of human population lies in the hands of fate.

But human beings are also thinking creatures.  We can look around us and observe. We know that current population in the Chesapeake watershed is more than 16 million, with another 100,000 added each year.  The U.S. population has now topped 300,000,000.  We know that world population has more than doubled since 1960.  The human population on this round globe is now over 6.7 billion and rising.

What happens next no one knows.  (For an interesting discussion of the possibilities, see Which World? by Allen Hammond.)

It’s hard even to talk about population growth.  Discussions run right into cultural issues, religious issues, ethnic issues.  There is a chance for prejudice to raise its ugly head.  This is especially true when one considers that much of the population growth in the U.S. comes from immigration, and that most immigrants come from what have historically been minority cultures in this country — at least since the English colonies took hold in the 17th century.  (Before that, the Spanish were here, and before that, of course, Native Americans.)

The question before us now is what kind of conversation about human population growth we can have that is not driven by nationalism or racism or exclusionary thinking but rather by a compassionate concern for the future of the human race and for the planet on which we all live.  In this region, that includes a concern for the Chesapeake Bay and for the watershed that feeds it.

These are tricky waters, and Tom Horton deserves credit for his courage in beginning to navigate them.  While his focus may shift toward our consumptive lifestyle and the myth of endless growth, the questions he raises about population shouldn’t remain unanswered.

(See more about Tom Horton’s report at Chesapeake Quarterly online , and read the report itself, published by the Abell Foundation.)