How to save the Chesapeake Bay: Oysters vs. Regulations

CHURCHVILLE, VA—The Obama administration seems deeply committed to policies that can’t work. One of the most glaring dead end policies is the Chesapeake Bay project.

Over the past 30 years, we’ve spent billions of federal dollars trying to reduce the nitrogen and other nutrients that get into the Bay, with absolutely no impact on the murky water. The Obama strategy is to double down, as they did with their British-style “health care reform” that has failed everywhere—including Britain. But as the British decentralize their medical decisions to 50,000 doctors, the EPA will now install mandatory farm management requirements around the Bay.

When the Bay was healthy, the water stayed clear because it was constantly filtered by the Bay’s huge oyster population. The oyster-cleared water fostered more eel grass on the bottom to shelter baby crabs and fish. The oysters and eel-grass also broke down huge tonnages of nitrogen and other nutrients naturally. Then the oyster population collapsed.

The logical key to a clean bay is restoring the oysters. Until recently, we just didn’t know how. We may now have that capability.

The new strategy has little to do with farming and nitrogen. The Corps of Engineers has produced a rapidly expanding oyster population in the Great Wicomico River by rebuilding the high shell reefs (12–16 inches) typical of the natural Bay. These high shell reefs kept the oysters up off the river bottom, above the sediment, and in strong enough currents that the viruses now ravaging the Bay mollusks had far less impact. The Great Wicomico now has 185 million thriving oysters, about as many as all the waters of Maryland!

This success strongly suggests that oyster dredging caused the Bay shellfish collapse, especially the power dredging allowed since World War II. Restoration would mean building high shell reefs in many of the key streams, and protecting them from harvest until they’ve had a chance to expand the high shell reefs and reseed the bay with spat.

We’ll also need a new, cost-effective way to harvest the oysters, without going back to the laborious hand-tonging. Does that mean vacuum tubes, handled by scuba divers?  This line of approach certainly looks more productive than the Obama call to shut down the Bay region’s high-yield farmers.

Insanity is continuing to do what you’ve been doing, and expecting a different result.



D. Schulte, R. Burke, R. Lipclus, “Unprecedented Restoration of a Native Oyster Metapopulation,” Science, 28 August 2009.


About the Author: Dennis Avery

Dennis Avery

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of "Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years." Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 24421; email to [email protected]