I was completely caught off guard recently by someone who asked how our oyster aquaculture operations would negatively impact migratory waterfowl. This same person was supposedly an expert on marshland habitat and conservation related matters. I looked in stunned disbelief due to the apparent lack of understanding of the positive, virtuous circle of benefits that a healthy oyster population creates. When our farm puts oysters back in the water, we have the secondary benefit of improving migratory waterfowl habitat. It is a very simple relationship. Let me explain.
Oysters improve water quality because they filter phytoplankton particles which would otherwise cloud the water. Today’s massive phytoplankton levels in the bay are caused by runoff induced overloading caused by fertilizers, development, and topsoil erosion throughout the Chesapeake watershed. In case you are unaware, we have way too many nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay. Today’s nutrient loads are not healthy. In fact, the federal government is pressuring states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to reduce their nutrient loads at the risk of losing federal funding should they fail to act. So having more oysters in the Chesapeake Bay would seem to be a no-brainer. More oysters in the water mean more filtering. More filtering means reduced nutrient loads. That means clearer water would return. So in a nutshell, oysters clean the water.
Captain John Smith marveled at the clarity of the water within the Chesapeake Bay when he first explored its streams and tributaries 400 years ago. Now that the oyster is virtually gone from the Chesapeake Bay, the water is a muddy, cloudy soup. In fact, you can hardly see your hand if you were to submerge it in 6 inches of water in certain parts of the watershed. Why does clear water matter? Well clear water allows sunlight to penetrate all the way to the bottom of our rivers. Chesapeake Bay tributaries are loaded with sub aquatic vegetation seeds (known as SAV) in their river bottoms. These seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years and will sprout in the right conditions if sunlight is able to penetrate and reach the seafloor once again.
When these seeds sprout, the sub aquatic vegetation can flourish. Sunlight will once again make photosynthesis possible. SAV will work to further reduce nutrient loads within the water. The grasses also restore critical nursery habitat for fish and crabs. However, perhaps the most important contribution sub aquatic vegetation makes to the food chain is its role as a vital food source for migratory waterfowl. At one time the sub aquatic vegetation of the Chesapeake Bay was a giant meadow resembling the vast grasslands of the Midwestern United States. These submerged grasslands were a wonder to behold. It is a shame that these underwater meadows are nearly on the verge of total collapse today. It is no surprise that the waterfowl that once dined on this cornucopia of submerged vegetation are no longer able to graze at will as the water is clouded. Migratory waterfowl have drastically reduced in number as a direct result. The remaining ducks and geese that once used the Chesapeake as a vital waypoint during their migration patterns have had to modify their ancient travelling routes and seek new food locations. The great Chesapeake buffet table, has sadly become starving grounds for these exhausted and hungry birds.
As an example, look at the Black Duck. Scientists claim that at one time the Black Duck was the second most populous bird in North America. It was second in number only to the once ubiquitous Passenger Pigeon. The Passenger Pigeon has since been extirpated from planet Earth by overzealous hunters more than 100 years ago. The Black Duck is currently on a similar path to perdition. The grasslands within the Chesapeake Bay on which the Black Duck fed no longer exist in any meaningful resemblance to historical volumes. So what happened to the Black Duck? You guessed it. A massive reduction in number. This drop in the Black Duck population is directly related to the disappearance of sub aquatic vegetation within the Chesapeake Bay.
No doubt, overzealous waterfowl hunters also worked against the Black Duck. These hunters once shot with “big guns.” These boat mounted canons sprayed shot over an enormous area. The end result would be death in unfathomable quantities from a single pull of the trigger. It is reported that a single big gun could kill upwards of 100 sleeping ducks sitting on the water at night unawares of the destruction that was headed their way. Certainly this unabated, one might say stupid, hunting technique took its toll. However the big guns have since been rounded up and are for the most part, a thing of our barbaric past. Now that migratory waterfowl are able to rest once more in the Chesapeake without being shot to pieces after flying thousands of miles, their primary obstacle is a lack of food at what was once their primary stopping grounds.
So, if we can simply bring the oyster back, farmed, natural, or otherwise, then the water quality will improve. Sunlight will reach the seabed. Sub aquatic grasses will return, and migratory waterfowl such as the Black Duck will eat once again. That means more birds will return to the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a direct result of our farm putting oysters back in the York River, not the other way around. That explains why we are already seeing ducks congregate around the oyster cages we have in the water during the winter. Let’s get to work and bring the oyster back, my fellow bird lovers. If you would like to help, please visit our store and buy some of our branded apparel. Every penny we receive goes toward putting more oysters back in the water. More Oysters = More Birds.