Actually, the decline of oysters began back in the early 1840s, a time when most folks thought they were quite abundant, but that was actually the turning point for the bay's oyster population. Prior to the U.S. Civil War the bay supplied nearly 75-percent of all the world's oysters. "After the Civil War, the oyster harvesting industry exploded. In the 1880s, the Chesapeake Bay supplied almost half of the world's supply of oysters. New England fishermen encroached on the Bay after their local oyster beds had been exhausted, which prompted violent clashes with competitors from Maryland and Virginia. Watermen from different counties likewise clashed."
When the oyster population crashed in Chesapeake Bay, commercial watermen switched to catching other species of shellfish, mainly softshell and hardshell clams. It didn't take much to wipe them out as well.
Looking for new ways to make a living on the bay's natural resources, commercial watermen switched to striped bass, a species that until the early 1900s was used for fertilizer on waterside farms. It took a lot of years to wipe them out, but by the late 1950s the entire east coast population of striped bass was doomed and headed toward extinction. However, it took nearly 30 years before scientists decided the striper population was in trouble. By that time it was almost too late and a complete moratorium was enacted in 1985 in Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay, while northern states put stringent catch restrictions in place for recreational anglers.
Atlantic menhaden, one of the bay's most important filter feeders, came under attack as the striped bass population rapidly declined. Menhaden feed exclusively on various forms of plankton, with phytoplankton being at the top of their dietary preference. The largest commercial fishing industry in the nation targets Atlantic menhaden and is based out of Reedville, VA. The schools of fish are encircled with large, purse nets, and then sucked up large tubes into a hold. They are then transported to the menhaden reduction plant where the fish are essentially cooked down, the oils extracted and used for paints and omega3 fish oil tablets, and the carcass is used for poultry and hog feed.
In 2006 the Atlantic menhaden commercial harvest fell to under 110,000 metric tons. This was a far cry from harvest levels of just a decade earlier, a reduction of more than 90 percent. There was no reduction, however, in harvest effort, which actually increased over the same period. Spotting a school of migrating menhaden in Chesapeake Bay and the nearshore Atlantic waters is almost unheard of these days. Three decades ago, schools measuring up to 40 miles long and 10 miles wide were a common occurrence.
Other filter feeders on the bay include barnacles, which until recent years were probably as common as zebra mussels in the great lakes. When I was a youngster every piling in Baltimore's Inner Harbor was totally encrusted with them. In some locations they were an inch or more thick, and they covered the pilings from the high tide line to the muddy bottom.
Sure, you can still find barnacles in the bay, but they no longer live in depths below 10 feet - mainly because they need oxygen in order to survive. The same holds true for all bay species, most of which that are still alive can only survive during mid summer in depths less than 15 feet, and that includes those that can tolerate relatively low oxygen levels.
With the exception of barnacles, all the other bay's filter feeders have been wiped out by commercial exploitation. And, until recent years, there was essentially no catch restrictions, at least anything meaningful. Ironically, Maryland's commercial watermen have essentially been putting themselves out of business for the past two centuries, mainly by depleting one bay resources after another. Additionally, they are among the only self employed businessmen that are able to collect unemployment compensation with a particular fishery closes because that fishery's population crashed.
There's a lot more to this story than meets the eye, and I didn't just pull this information out of the air and post it here. As an investigative reporter, I wrote about the Chesapeake Bay and it's fisheries for more than two-dozen publications for more than 35 years. I've spent thousands upon thousands of hours both on the bay, and SCUBA diving beneath it's surface. I also fished nearly every state in the nation, and fished several countries, often fishing with the area's top fishing guides, interviewing leading state and federal fisheries scientists, and managed to collect tens of thousands of photos in the process.
One of the things I learned from more than three decades as an investigative reporter was you're not going to change some things, human nature being at the top of the list. People began using the world's waterways as a waste disposal system long before we were born, and this will likely never change. The out of sight out of mind scenario. We continue to dump human and animal poop into the streams, rivers, bays and oceans as if it will just go away. It never has. We bury our disposables in landfills, cover it with dirt, then cover it with plastic, and finally another layer of dirt, thinking it just went away. It's biodegradable, isn't it? Not in anyone's lifetime! There was an old saying by a long since deceased U.S. Senator "The solution to pollution is dilution." a rationale that still exists to this day.
I sincerely wish I were dead wrong on this issue, but I'm very confident I'm right on the money. Everything on the planet is now considered disposable. At one time it was pretty much limited to diapers, which at the time took up more than 66 percent of most U.S. landfills. Now, in 2013, telephones, TVs, computers, cars, homes, everything - we just toss them into a landfill, or into the water. Then we find some scientists to investigate why the water is polluted and you cannot safely eat anything that comes out of it. We have another team of investigators that are studying the worlds groundwater supplies, trying to figure out how they became so polluted. We have people investigating why springheads and groundwater supplies are drying up at an alarming rate throughout the nation, while agriculture and municipal users continue to drill deeper and deeper to obtain more and more water. They do this instead of creating reservoirs.
Then, here in Chesapeake Bay, we have Governor Owe-Mally, (O'Mally), who has presidential aspirations for when O'Bamma leaves office. Owe-Mally just enacted a stormwater management tax on everyone in the state, $125 per year for homeowners, more for business, claiming that all those impervious surfaces are why Chesapeake Bay is fouled. He figures that if we pay a lot more money, the bay can be cleansed of its impurities. Yeah, right! He says the money will not be dumped into the state's general fund. Of course, he has a track record of lying about these things.
Yeah, I'm still cynical!