Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Time is the essence...Time is the season...

While in graduate school a few years back, I developed a strange fixation with oysters. 


Now, I've never eaten them and never plan to, but I found the story of the native Chesapeake Bay bivalves fascinating -- I mean, people fought wars over them! 

My oyster obsession led to several papers on the topic of their restoration -- which after over half a century of effort has actually left them worse off than before intervention -- and ultimately culminated in a policy memo arguing not for or against any specific polices, but rather a new approach to policy. To wit:
Despite the insistence of many intelligent individuals to the contrary, the problem plaguing oyster recovery efforts is not an inability to overcome the diseases; rather, the problem is an inability to overcome our dogmatic approach to issues of ecology and economics. The first question posed above asks what we have done wrong, and the answer is simple: we have mistaken the oyster situation for a single problem and therefore have generated single-minded policies to address it. In reality, we are faced with two distinct problems, one involving oysters and one involving watermen. And, to define these problems only in their joint context fails to account for the broader range of issues involved in both. The perfect example of our outmoded framework for addressing these issues is the current debate over the introduction of the non-native oyster Crassostrea ariakensis (Chinese Oyster). Proponents of the plan stress that these oysters would be able to supply watermen with a viable livelihood, while also increasing the Bay’s water quality; it sounds too good to be true because it is. When freed of the desire to find a single panacea for these two problems, we can finally begin to individually address the real needs of maintaining the oysters’ water filtration capacity and improving the sustainability of the watermen and their harvests by creating adequate levels resource stock, oysters or otherwise.
Of course, I was writing this to get a grade and not so much to change policy, but prior to my ill-fated stint with the State Department of Natural Resources, the memo found its way into the hands of policy makers, who at the time weren't too keen on taking advice from some Longhair with a nebulous job title.

Nevertheless, despite its glacial pace, State government has proven me prescient.
Maryland should move toward an aquaculture-based oyster industry while at the same time trying to restore natural oyster bars for ecological benefits, according to a task force report.

The Maryland Oyster Commission's 2007 interim report does not call for a moratorium on the harvest of oysters nor for an end to public subsidies for harvest programs. Rather, it says the state should over the next two decades change how it manages oysters.

"People understand that what we've done in the past is not working, and that we do have to take some dramatic steps," said Bill Eichbaum, commission chairman and vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. "We have at least put down benchmarks that are different from what's been done in the past."

The state has convened numerous panels to discuss oyster restoration over the years, and each has tried to balance the ecological benefits of keeping oysters in the water with the economic interests of watermen. The new report says economic and ecological goals for oysters are "mutually incompatible." The oyster population is at 1 percent of its historic levels.
(Bolding mine.)

I'm not trying to claim credit or even pat myself on the back (well, maybe a little). Perhaps I'm just proving the cliche about a broken clock being right twice a day -- personally, I prefer "the sun even shines on a dog's ass some days," but that's neither here nor there.

What is here, however, is the fact that with a new approach to oyster recovery we might finally start seeing some real progress, which, no matter how you shuck it, is very good thing.

9 comments:

Freemarket said...

You bring up points that apply a hell of a lot more broadly than oysters. Something we should all keep in mind is that problems are often more complex that we may want to believe. We tend to filter everything through our narrow range of experiences and expertise. When you're only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean we're going turn the Bay into a soggy factory farm, trusting the same industry and regulators that have allowed 99% of the oyster population to be destroyed to now better manage the remaining 1% of the local oyster population as well as new populations imported from elsewhere? In the Choptank River, the rate of oyster destruction appears to be even higher, about 99.8%.

Wasn't it Einstein who said something along the lines of repeating the same events and expecting a different outcome is a sign of insanity?

What about dealing with the two true root causes: overharvesting of the oysters and the many forms of pollution entering the Bay?

The Bay preservation programs have HUGE room for improvement to deal with inadequately treated sewage and stormwater runoff from NY, PA, MD, DE, DC, VA, and WV containing road pollutants, pesticides, herbicides, mining leachate, agricultural fertilizer, farm manure, and silt from development, agriculture, and mining. And we have a big problem just waiting to happen with all the silt that's trapped behind the Conowingo Dam. Just one hurricane could scour out a massive amount of silt over the top of the Dam and into the Bay that would devastate the Bay's ecosystem.

60 Minutes did a piece recently on how technology's (spotter planes, fast ships, circular net deployments, and onboard blast freezers) being used to very effectively devastate the tuna population in the Mediterranean through overharvesting. Similar overharvesting of the oceans at large is occurring on a massive scale via deep water dredging. A very big out of sight, out of mind problem.

Like the rockfish, the local oysters deserve a moratorium on harvesting until their populations return to levels that are healthy, sustainable, and can contribute effectively towards healing the damage that we've done to the Bay. Bringing in a foreign replacement to do the job may seem expedient, but is such a change to the local ecosystem's population ethical?

Let the states involved employ the watermen for a few years in roles that enforce pollution laws that protect the Bay and that educate the public at large about the Bay's ecosystem. The oysters don't get harvested in the meantime, allowing them to rebuild their populations, and the water quality gets better through improved pollution controls. Any increase in revenues resulting from fines of polluters goes towards funding the watermen's pay by the states. Fines should certainly occur for those entities externalizing the costs of their actions through allowing above allowed amounts of pollutants into the Bay.

The watermen get to go back in the water when oysters get back up to 50% of their historic population, with the hope that the populations continue to increase and the goal of achieving 100% of historic populations thereafter. Can you imagine how healthy both the watermen's industry would be and the Bay would be if 100% of historic populations were restored?

And one more pearl to ponder: soon we'll be drinking some of the same water the oysters do. It would behoove us to improve that water's cleanliness sooner rather than later.

Freemarket said...

Anon- I think you need to pay a bit more attention to the point of this post. No one is making an argument that the environment should be treated as a toilet bowl. We all desire a clean planet and want a clean bay. Where problems arise is when goods and services that people want require a trade off that negatively affects the environment. When you drive your car to the environmental meeting (or to buy a new hemp shirt) you are causing environmental devastation. Should there be a moratorium on driving until the planet cools down? The point of this post was to consider the multiple facets that problems have.

If anyone wants the status quo to continue, it is you.

Anonymous said...

Have you been tailing the wrong car? I've yet to drive to an environmental meeting (that would kind of defeat the purpose) or buy such a shirt (sounds way too itchy to me).

"Where problems arise is when goods and services that people want require a trade off that negatively affects the environment."

Providing those goods and services don't require polluting the Bay or eliminating 99% of any of its native populations. Just to be clear, restoring the Bay's ecosystem is far more preferable than the status quo.

Freemarket said...

Wow! People who drive to environmental meetings defeat the purpose of having an environmental meeting? Those fools!

“Let the states involved employ the watermen for a few years in roles that enforce pollution laws that protect the Bay and that educate the public at large about the Bay's ecosystem. The oysters don't get harvested in the meantime, allowing them to rebuild their populations, and the water quality gets better through improved pollution controls. Any increase in revenues resulting from fines of polluters goes towards funding the watermen's pay by the states. Fines should certainly occur for those entities externalizing the costs of their actions through allowing above allowed amounts of pollutants into the Bay.”

Sounds like you know everything and you have this complex problem figured out. Let me know how your plan turns out!

Anonymous said...

You say that driving to a meeting devastates the environment, but you balk at others opting not to do so when they can avail themselves of smaller footprint ways to get there?

The thing I know best is the more you know (the figurative "you", not you literally), the more you know you don't know. As far as figuring this all out, knowing the plight of the rockfish is helpful. So is some light reading on this subject, both from authoritative bodies and from involved parties.

Hayduke said...

Anon,

Both of those links got to information about the introduction on nonnative oyster species, an idea poo-pooed by both me and the State.

To be honest, I'm not sure what your problems are with my post or the decision by the State to address separately the ecological issues related to a loss of native oysters (which, truth be told, is today as much due to the disease as it is overharvesting and pollution) and the economic issues related to the watermen.

I'm not suggesting we give up. Rather, I'm suggesting we try a better approach to policy making, one that truly recognizes the complexity of the Bay's situation -- that is, one that acknowledges that there is no silver bullet to any of these problems.

As I said in the post, I'm not arguing policies; I'm arguing philosophy.

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