The Return of the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Industry and Its Current Threat

The U.S. Presidential Office released a budget proposal this month that horrified people on both sides of the aisle because of its deep cuts into the EPA, and by extension, the Chesapeake Bay and its oysters. While there are many that will argue that the slashing effectively draws back the curtain that has blocked business interests from taking center stage, we must agree that carving out such a large chunk of federally funded environmental protection will not be appreciated by the environment in the generations to come.

For hundreds of years this East Coast estuary (the largest in North America) was pockmarked with bivalves ripe for the picking. Oysters were a dime a dozen, and the industry was booming.

That is, until the mid 20th century when a lack of environmental regulations allowed blooms of algae to swirl through the water unchecked while pollutants drifted downstream to further ravaged the diseased populations of bivalves.

Then, in 1983, Ronald Regan implemented a Environmental Protection Agency cleanup for the Chesapeake Bay. The imposed regulations were further tightened in 2009 by Obama.

By last year, the program was receiving $73 million in federal funds. However, Trump has proposed to cut that number down to $5 million while also axing current environmental regulations.

The Chesapeake Bay will be especially affected.

Many such regulations, like the EPA’s power to police fertilizer runoff -which are chief contaminants in the Chesapeake Bay – would be detrimental to oyster populations.

In fact, it is since these regulations were instated that the once notoriously bacteria-plagued waters of the Chesapeake bay have recovered to become a haven for oyster farmers. Now annual sales figures in Virginia alone are cresting $16 million.

Not only that, but Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, told the Huffington Post that in the last five years he has seen a doubling of farmed oyster sales on the East Coast.

The new sales totals are reaching $155 million per year.

What will these budget cuts affect?

Now with the industry operating at such an impressive size, cutting the federal funding to the Chesapeake Bay’s EPA initiative will not only endanger the quality of US oysters, but it will damage a thriving industry that provides thousands of jobs.

Because without clean water, there will be no customer confidence.

“If this program is eliminated, there’s a very real chance that the bay will revert to a national disgrace” with poor water quality, unhealthy fish, and shellfish and waterborne diseases that threaten human health, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker said in a conference call with reporters.

Furthermore, the Chesapeake Bay is currently the hot bed for sustainable oyster farming. Farmers’ dedication to advancing techniques for oyster raising have immeasurably contributed to the quality of the bay’s ecology as well as provided an increase in production. Needless to say they have also revived a heritage industry.

Chesapeake oysters are known to be unique among the connoisseurs of this mollusk. Julie Qiu, a Brooklyn-based oyster lover, who writes the blog In a Half Shell, told Huffington Post that Chesapeake oysters are among her favorites:

“The heritage is really unique for the Chesapeake, and I’ve found that oysters coming from this part of the country have a lot of meat, compared to, say, oysters in northern Canada or New England.”

There is plenty of opposition to the proposed defunding.

Off the menu sampler of Mystics at @grandbanksnyc by Boston shuckin' champ @sauvage_noble ? #NationalOysterDay

A post shared by Julie Qiu, Oyster Sommelier (@inahalfshellblog) on

Losing this hard-won resurgence of a cultural gem by a reduction in federal support for a clean ecosystem is not something that many in either party support.

Kate Addleson, director of the Maryland chapter, said in a statement released to the public: 

“This is an outrageous and unnecessary cut that violates a longstanding, bipartisan consensus that cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is good for our region and good for our nation.

The progress being made toward protecting this critical resource for the region supports fisheries, oyster and crab populations, tourism and other industries ― really the whole ecosystem. All of these beneficiaries of the program would be at risk if this reckless cut was to go through.”

Thankfully, the White House’s budget plan is likely to face some stiff opposition in Congress, from both sides as EPA cleanup efforts, especially those in the Chesapeake Bay have bipartisan support.

Why eating a clean oyster is the only way

Hopefully, our representatives vote to continue to keep American oyster reserves clean. Oysters raised in a clean environment are the only ones that you’re going to be able to enjoy.

As you consume them alive, it is absolutely critical that the seawater that they are bloated with, and that you will consume, is of a certain acceptable quality.

Read More: Honey Bees Are Disappearing by the Millions: Here’s Why It Matters for Our Food