When Captain John Smith first surveyed the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, he marveled at the clarity of the water. In Smith's journal, he described the area as a paradise, saying it was fed by "innumerable sweet and pleasant springs." But ever since Smith's tales of a land of plenty, a door opened for European settlement along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and the Bay, leading to changes in patterns of land use and degraded ecosystems.
While the Bay still serves as critical habitat for fish, waterfowl, and many other species, and produces about 500 million pounds of seafood every year, the Bay is far less productive than it once was.
Today, the Bay is home to more than 17 million people, with 150,000 new people moving to the Bay annually. Consequently, the Bay has lost more than 99 percent of its native oysters and continues to lose an estimated 2,600 acres of oyster habitat annually.
In fact oyster reefs are some of the most threatened marine habitat on the planet. Oyster populations fell due to disease, historic over-fishing, sedimentation, run-off and degraded water quality, which overwhelmed remaining oyster reefs. Due to lost habitat, the Bay's fishing industry harvests have fallen from tens of millions of bushels of oysters to less than one percent of those historic levels.
An individual oyster, 3 inches in size, can filter 50 gallons of water in a day. So, as oysters disappear, the health of the Bay continues to diminish. Oyster reefs that once filtered the entire Bay in several days, now take more than a year to do so.
Oyster restoration and the Bay will continue being threatened by land use change, habitat loss from development pressure, polluted runoff from nearby cities and agricultural land, among other challenges. Climate change will further exacerbate the Bay's stresses by increasing water temperatures in the shallow Bay, leading to algal blooms and zones that lack sufficient oxygen for fish.
Coming to the oysters' defense are local organizations and companies that recognize the importance of protecting the Bay and seek to increase awareness about its health while supporting the local economy.
Flying Dog Brewery, based in Frederick, Maryland, has partnered with Rappahannock Oyster Company (ROC) to develop the Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout - a "roasty, toasty, delicious and malty" beer with "a lovely butter-toffee finish as the bitterness fades," according to Food Republic. After drinking the Pearl Necklace, Jayce Flickinger, the beer director at Woodberry Kitchen said many people are shocked to learn that it is made with real oysters. They often smile and stare back into the empty pint glass, admiring the beer's subtle grittiness.
Woodberry Kitchen's annual Oyster Festival features the beer and seeks to improve the health of the Bay through oyster restoration and showcasing locally grown products.
Flying Dog's partnerships with ROC and Woodberry Kitchen, stem from shared interests to create something unique in order to raise awareness for the need to restore oysters in the Bay. Travis Croxton, owner of ROC, said they've "been fortunate to meet various artisans in different fields that become friends that share a kinship for environmental stewardship." Proceeds from Pearl Necklace sales go back into the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which coordinates and conducts oyster restoration in the Bay. Similarly, a portion of the Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale will be donated to True Blue, a campaign that advocates on behalf of the 5,500 watermen of the Bay. It promotes sustainably harvested Maryland Blue Crab, which only a decade ago was on the brink of collapse.
Through local partnerships, companies like Flying Dog make a tremendous difference in their community and beyond by exploring ideas and investing in sustainable solutions. Regional ties, like those between Flying Dog, Old Bay, Rappahannock Oyster Company, and Woodberry Kitchen bolster their respective missions, and as Croxton said, "give them another platform on which to speak about the challenges facing the Bay." Such work highlights how companies can work together and enlist creativity in all forms to protect the interests of future generations.