Out and About (Sort of): Oysters, Science and Human Behavior by Howard Freedlander

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For two years, the future of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay has drawn the attention of 16 concerned “stakeholders,” as human beings with established viewpoints grappled with how to manage and increase the population of a bivalve that symbolizes the health of the Bay and drives the livelihood of the Eastern Shore’s iconic watermen.

Armed with a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the determined organizational leadership of Dr. Elizabeth North, the stakeholder group, comprising watermen, aquaculture producers, a seafood buyer and representatives of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Coastal Conservation Association, Philips Wharf Environmental Center, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the federal government sought a solution that will become public in May.

What’s known today, according to Dr. North, principal investigator for the OysterFutures project and associate professor of fisheries oceanography at Horn Point Lab, is that the quest for consensus in the oyster production arena was successful. As noted, details will follow shortly.

There’s no secret that the relations among watermen, regulators, advocacy groups and scientists have been tense and testy for many years. The watermen, understandably, want to fish for oysters and make a good living devoid of burdensome regulations and scientific data they may not trust.

On the other hand, natural resource managers in the state and federal governments intend to preserve the oysters, decimated over the years by disease, habitat loss and too much fishing pressure.

The backdrop to OysterFutures project was sensitive to say the least. Mistrust was a major impediment. Civil communication, as in any other discussion joined by people with ingrained differing opinions, would be a critical element to what participants hoped would be a favorable resolution.

A few years ago when I interviewed Dr. North for an article in The Star Democrat, I was dubious about the likelihood of a consensus. A week ago, Dr. North addressed my doubts. I’m now hopeful.

She said, “It has been very rewarding and challenging to be part of a process where people came together to find commonality…to find out what people agree on.”

Facilitated by two representatives of the University of Florida Conse4nsus Center, equipped with 25 years of experience working with the commercial fishing industry in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions, the process encompassed nine meetings conducted for 10-12 hours in each session at Horn Point Lab. Meetings included a research team, headed by Dr. North and that included natural and social scientists, as well as scientific communicators.

The goal of OysterFutures was to produce regulations and policies that would prove effective in improving the oyster resource, and focused on upgrading performance measures, such as oyster abundance, harvest and habitat in the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers.

What particularly fascinates me is another outcome sought in this project. NSF funded this project not only to produce results—whatever they might be–that could increase the threatened, often precarious oyster population–but also to study the human ecology necessary to grow a thriving industry.

What do I mean?

Simply, NSF and the OysterFutures team were intensely interested in the human relations required among the varied stakeholders to develop a consensus that would alter the economic and environmental viability of oysters.

North said, “We had honest, respectful and constructive dialogue. Each participant brought his or her own tree of truth., and we were able to integrate conflicting points of view into a broader collective understanding.

“The local knowledge of watermen was important. They stuck to their guns; they put forward what they considered honest and insisted that their insights be recognized.”

In some cases, preconceived notions fell by the way side, according to North.

Professor North is convinced that the “human dimension” of the facilitated consensus process could be applied to other natural resource conundrums. She believes it could be effective in driving solutions that might influence decision-makers.

I applaud the National Science Foundation, Dr. North and her colleagues for conjoining the study of human interaction and scientific research in the context of a highly contested environmental issue. It only makes sense.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Jim Franke says:

    On a tour of Horn Point a few years ago, I was told that they have the infrastructure in place that would allow doubling the annual spat output. But funding limits the ability to distribute that increase. I asked the Executive Director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership about this and he said it would take about another $2,000,000 a year. With recent data supporting the success of the program, seems time to double the effort.

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