“One of the things we were surprised at,” says Beck,” was to learn that the Gulf of Mexico may be the last place left in the world where we can achieve large-scale sustainable fisheries and reef conservation at the same time. Right now, they’re looking at some of the best conditions in the world. But we’re following the same trajectory of over 140 bays elsewhere in our survey – and (on the Gulf, they can say) ‘Yes, they’re declining but it’s not a problem.’ But that’s what we did everywhere else and fished ‘em till they were gone.”
Beck says the chief reason for disappearing reefs is “habitat degradation from destructive fishing practices (trawling dovetails with over-harvesting). Then after we’ve seen some declines, it’s not uncommon for us to see the introduction of non-native oysters along with native oysters, which can produce disease and other predators. Those are part of the problem, and in about that order.”
Though the report’s locations range widely, Beck says there is a commonality in the declines. In essence, it’s a global recipe, he says – but not for your Maryland auntie’s prized oyster stew or Uncle Boudreaux’ Creole gumbo. If consumers, commercial fisherman and even government management agencies aren’t made aware of the drastic declines, the current figures could add up to a not-so-savory outcome: The loss of virtually all of the world’s oyster reefs, a recipe for marine disaster.
But both Beck and Gayaldo remain optimistic. They point out that average Americans can help in a few simple ways: By not over-fertilizing or chemically treating lawns and farms (and not just those along major rivers and waterways, Gayaldo says, because the central U.S. is one giant basin, draining down the Mississippi into the Gulf); by removing silt or excess soil after construction or renovation projects (this also eases down through the basin, with the cumulative effect of literally smothering oysters in their beds); and to ask, when eating oysters, whether the delicacies were captured through hazardous commercial fishing techniques that include trawling. If the answer is yes, then just say no.
“Individuals don’t need to play a big role; they need to take a small role that they do well,” says Gayaldo, clarifying the true nature of the National Fisheries’ philosophy.
“The National FIsheries Service, not only do we care about the environment and the flora and fauna who live in the environment, we also care about the economy and the people who try to make a living off (marine life).
“The commercial fishermen, they’ve been suffering. … But if you look at oysters in broader terms, they also indicate the health of our coasts. So if you’re losing oysters as we are, that tells us that we’re losing healthy coasts. … We find that as we lose oysters we try to make up for it in other ways. On a local level, people who live right on the shore and may have gone out and collected them…are now putting up lots of rock around their shorelines to try to protect them. They may not have recognized that oysters are protecting the shorelines…. They’re taking a natural shoreline and turning it into the something that’s not natural – into an uninhabitable area, basically. So with restorations, that’s what we’re trying to do (re-educate, increase awareness of such seemingly innocuous methods).”
An oyster-lover himself (yes, he likes them on his dinner plate), Gayaldo says one thing that really worries him is that conservation-minded consumers, with the best intentions, might abandon the beloved bivalve.
“We certainly don’t want people to react in the wrong way and to say, ‘Hey, I like oysters – therefore I’m going to stop eating oysters.’ That will actually hurt local oysters.”
Beck, who also enjoys the savory delicacies, maintains that in some places, things are slowly getting better, such as in Netarts, on the Oregon Coast.
“I actually think some of the habitats in the Gulf are getting to sustainable fisheries level – just with conservation. At least, right now. … At most other places, restoration is the only way to go.”
He adds that, for the foodie craving his or her Oysters Bienville, there are moral ways to enjoy.
“When making choices, it would be good if we knew where they were coming from. We should be getting those that aren’t dredged from the bottom. Asking about this, and asking our (regional or state or federal) habitat managers to manage them better. …This is a really important point for turning around the Chesapeake Bay, and instead of laying off there, we’re still trying to harvest from the one percent in the bay.”
But, Beck believes Chesapeake has a good prognosis, in part because of a recent decision to not introduce non-natives to its oyster reefs. “We (government agencies) made that decision about a month ago, which was great news, one of the best lately. And we should promote the development of native aquaculture there.” Which is already underway.
Asked if he could picture a world without oysters, Beck pauses for a second, having just concluded what would seem depressing work.
“The Chesapeake Bay gives us some signals to that. It’s a bay that’s muddier, with less grasses, less clean water, less cultural institutions like the fishing cultures. … But I still eat shellfish. I still support shell fishermen, and I would love to see those virbrant communities that have been so hard hit come back. I’d like to see that remain in our cultural heritage – and I think it can.”
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