Archive for the ‘Oysters’ Category

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.