Local fishermen endangered if oysters are
|Banner file photo/Wood
Jimmy Rose shows off oysters grown on his Wellfleet aquaculture grant, his livelihood, which could be taken away if NOAA places the eastern oyster on the federal endangered species list.
NOAA looks to deem eastern oysters an endangered species
By Ann Wood & Kaimi Rose Lum
WELLFLEET — If it’s determined that the decline of the eastern oyster on the Maryland and Virginia coastline represents a “significant portion” of the subspecies, the oyster could be added to the federal endangered species list, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service spokesperson Marta Nammack said Monday.
A ban on oystering would significantly affect this town, where shellfish — oysters, in particular — are its biggest industry. Wellfleet oysters are a world-famous delicacy that accounted for more than $2.5 million of the town’s aquaculture, or shellfish farming, industry in 2002. About 100 families in town rely primarily on oysters for their revenue.
Nammack said that after NOAA received a petition from Ecosystem Initiative Advisory Services in Maryland, it did a 90-day finding and decided that placing the oyster on the endangered species list is “something we have to look at further.” Its decision is made purely on scientific evidence, she said, not economics.
NOAA has since created a status review team, which will hear scientific evidence from shellfish experts on Aug. 8 and 9 in Annapolis, Md., to “get the team all in one place.” The team will meet two more times, after which a recommendation will be made about the fate of the oyster.
Bill Walton, Barnstable Country Cooperative Extension’s aquaculture specialist and Wellfleet’s former shellfish constable, says he doesn’t think that even Chesapeake Bay has a case for calling the oyster endangered. He says that the evidence presented is all about catch reports, not about the animal.
“Endangered, biologically, I mean that’s major,” he said, adding that it implies a species is dying out. “There’s a difference between biologically and overfishing. … When they get harder to catch it gets to the point where people stop catching them. That doesn’t mean they are going instinct.”
The numbers of the oysters are down, Walton admitted, but they are still there. He says there are “numerous embayments” where oysters can be found year after year.
“I think the case is poor. I think the implications, if it ever happened, are horrible for the industry,” Walton said.
NOAA will make its ruling on Jan. 11, 2006, after which there will be a 60-day public comment period. There will be no public comment period before that, but local politicians are speaking out.
State Rep. Shirley Gomes and Sen. Rob O’Leary worked together to pass a resolution in both the House and Senate objecting to placing the eastern oyster on the federal endangered species list last Wednesday.
“We hardly ever pass a resolution in one day, but we did for this,” Gomes said. “[We’re trying] to do all we can to stop this in its tracks.”
Ecosystem Initiative, a consulting firm founded by W. Dieter Busch, contends that loss of habitat, overfishing and disease have caused the eastern oyster to declined to near extinction. Federal data shows that annual landings along the eastern coast have fallen to less than two percent of the landings in 1880 (from around 150 million pounds to less than 30 million pounds).
But, Gomes says, she believes those numbers don’t include “harvesting beds,” such as aquaculturists have. This state is ahead of Maryland, Gomes says, because when farmers place oyster seed on their beds and the seed spawns, it spreads throughout the harbor and wild oysters grow.
“We’re not doing what Maryland does. We have a lot of oyster beds that we cultivate for harvesting,” Gomes said. “For us, that’s another reason we’d like them to butt out. … If they were successful in passing this, we couldn’t ask for a resolution excluding the Northeast. [If an] endangered species issue like this passes, it’s for the entire country.”
The Wellfleet Shellfish Dept. has just finished its annual deployment of cultch, or clam shells, which are spread throughout the harbor to collect oyster spat. Fishermen spend a good deal of time removing oyster drills (which kill oysters) and breaking up wild oyster clumps (which suffocate oysters) so that they’ll have a better chance of survival.
This push for an endangered species designation comes on the heels of the red tide outbreak — the worst in some 30 years — which left shellfishermen out of work for more than five weeks. Although they could not sell their shellfish, growers still had to attend to their beds, making them unable to take second jobs. It is predicted that severe hardship will be felt in February by about 50 shellfish families in town, who were unable to save for the winter because they lost income over Memorial Day weekend and the month of June.
Still, there’s some hope. The state Division of Marine Fisheries doesn’t support placing the oyster on the endangered species list, aquatic biologist Mike Hickey said.
“This involves every state from Maine to Texas because that’s the home range of the eastern oyster, or the American oyster, same oyster. All of these states have something to say about it,” he said.
Some states would have no shellfishing industry if not for the oyster, Hickey said.
“Obviously you need to be concerned about things like this because you can’t be complacent. There are some problems with the eastern oyster and it’s habitat [but] I don’t think we’re at the point where we need to be thinking of it as an endangered species,” he said. “I don’t see that happening. I think that’s kind of on the extreme end of things.”
Instead, Hickey thinks that a management plan could be put into place, or something to that effect. He says that he, and representatives from similar agencies, have been asked to and will attend the NOAA meetings.
NOAA’s Nammack said that, if the oyster is placed on the threatened or endangered list, NOAA could place restrictions on the oyster industry, which could allow shellfish farms to continue production if the grants are “semi-closed” to the outside. Maybe.
“We don’t know what we’re looking at yet,” she said.
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