Shifting Baselines

You can’t have commercial fisheries in Chesapeake Bay, and eat your oysters too. That’s the thesis of Angus Phillip’s excellent article in the Washington Post on how Chesapeake’s Oyster Population Has Reached Rock Bottom.

[Phillips] asked about the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 2000, which set a goal of increasing the oyster population in the bay tenfold over a baseline of 1994 by the year 2010. How was that going?

Seven years into the effort, “There’s less oysters in the bay than we had then, according to the Department of Natural Resource’s own biomass data,” Baynard said. “We’re going backwards. We couldn’t reach that goal now if it rained oysters from the sky!”

Three hundred years ago, oysters were so abundant they made navigating the Bay difficult. One hundred years ago oysters were piled millions high. Today, oysters are overfished. Just another shifting baseline…

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A longshoreman standing in front of a large pile of oyster shells on waterfront pier in Atlantic City ca. 1910


  1. #1 Dave Briggs
    December 11, 2007

    Interesting post! Marine biology is a field I have not been able to keep up with, but I read on another blog the other day that some people have predicted that many or most human consumable species will collapse around 2048! Bad news for seafood lovers!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  2. #2 Mike Hirshfield
    December 11, 2007

    The really depressing thing is that oysters have been the object of an “unshift the baseline” campaign for years now. We showed all the old pictures, talked about the navigation hazards, told how oysters could filter a volume of water equivalent to the entire Chesapeake Bay in 3 days, while now it would take over 100 times longer. Unfortunately, all that hasn’t been enough. It’s a sad story indeed.

  3. #3 Jennifer L. Jacquet
    December 11, 2007

    Mike, I’m afraid you’re right. In oysters, at least we have some sort of recognition of what we’ve lost and still things haven’t changed ( the oyster population is still on the decline). I guess Chesapeake oysters simply aren’t tasty enough. Or they can’t compete politically with menhaden. What is it?

  4. #4 Mike Hirshfield
    December 11, 2007

    Narrow focused interests (fishing) trump broad diffuse interests (conservationists) most every time. Hence Ocean Champions.

  5. #5 Erik Hoffner
    December 13, 2007

    There’s a grassroots effort underway to take the old maps of oyster bars in the Chesapeake and rebuild/recolonize them.

    Oysters in the NYC metro area/LI sound are on a major rebound I recently read in one of the papers from there. Lack of fishing and a natural cycle both were cited as possible reasons why.


    Orion Grassroots Network

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