For Whom Is CBF Saving the Bay? by Marc Castelli

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On July 5, The Banner published a commentary written by Ms. Alison Prost. who is the Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Her headline read, Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Oyster story “isn’t that simple”.

Overall the piece exercised some carefully nuanced messaging and was not objective. I understand that it is a commentary and not an article, which would have some basic standards for being factual. It is labelled as a commentary. The readership should take it as the opinion it is. I have to ask; When CBF policy directors and educators go public with “commentaries”, aren’t they responsible to do so with reliable facts, not misleading innuendoes?

I will quote from just a few of the many questionable examples in the piece that will illustrate the missteps.

“…Forced to find oysters far away from their home grounds. That is a good story. It isn’t that simple”

Ms. Prost should have talked to an oysterman, not a CBF computer clicking biologist or administrator. Is Ms. Prost a biologist? She claims the oystermen made up the story. That is strong talk. Ask a local oysterman. True they weren’t forced to go to another area, as in picked up and forced to harvest from the Choptank or Chester River. But they certainly were forced out of the Little Choptank when it was established as a river wide sanctuary. The entire river isn’t being used for the restoration project, so one could ask why oystermen can’t harvest from the many creeks that aren’t part of the largescale planting project (share the river in other words). It’s because they were forced out! And that’s no story. And it is simple.

“Harvest of 84 K bushels-“…a lot of tax dollars were poured into the river in the form of oyster shells-1.5 million bushels between 1990 and 2000”.

To counter that oystermen were forced out, CBF argues that the harvest was great but then declined so oystermen had to move out anyway. It is accurate that the harvest declined, but that doesn’t negate that the sanctuary closure in fact closed the river to oystering. Facts are facts. The sanctuary law forced the end to oystering in the Little Choptank and many other areas. CBF may want you to believe alternate facts, but that boat doesn’t float in the waters on the Chesapeake.

CBF is correct that the harvest declined in the Little Choptank after the 1999 value of 84,000 bushels, but they  did not get the details right. They asserted that the harvest fell due to a failed shell program that yielded no benefits. Some facts might be of use in order to clear the air of hyperbole. The harvest did not collapse immediately after 1999. For the next two seasons it was between 27,000 and 33,000 bushels. Then it declined to below 3,000 and lower later on. But it cannot be blamed on a failed shell program. The multi-year strong harvests were partly due to the record spat set of 1997, and earlier good spat sets, that happened on oyster bars and on shell plantings. These facts on spat sets and harvest are noted in the DNR reports which are available online.  The 1997 spat set grew and drove the harvest for a few years after 1997. The downturn soon after (2002 and beyond) was due to a factor that Ms. Prost chose to ignore. These facts are also on the DNR website. Disease killed oysters at a very fast rate and drove the fishery down in just a couple of years after the record high spat set. This happened during the record 4 year drought of 1999-2002. Mortality rates set a historical high. The shells did not fail. They still attracted spat. The spat simply could not live to market size. MSX and Dermo killed them as they grew. According to CBF’s Prost, a failure in the shell program caused the decline in harvest. Is this a case of the foundation being misinformed or did she deliberately misinterpret the facts to suit her opinion? If the commentaries are factually inaccurate, or worse purposefully misleading, haven’t they betrayed their membership and those who attend their educational seminars, where accuracy is supposed to be paramount, not propaganda?

My last example is; CBF wrote: “Nothing actually improved, not the amount of oysters available to harvest, not the oyster population, not the ecology of the oyster bars.”

This set of opinions is the most serious error that CBF used. Remember that CBF is an environmental/educational organization that teaches our kids about the Bay. Yet their statement counters decades of information on the oyster industry and oysters as an ecological entity. CBF misses some facts. The seafood industry isn’t the only recipient of economic benefits. There are boat manufacturers, mechanics, marinas, fuel suppliers, gear manufacturers, marine electronic suppliers, restaurants, wait staff, local stores where oystermen and their families shop, truck dealers, the list goes on. As these other businesses benefit, it causes an economic multiplier (often assigned a value of 3) such that a dockside value of $10 million to the harvesters, for example, has a benefit in the economy of $30 million. Oddly enough some think that 3 is a low multiplier.

Over time, the shell program improved oyster habitat and the population, though CBF from that comfy office chair said nothing improved. It is an undeniable fact that shelling improved the oyster bottom. This program enhances the spat set. It is another undeniable fact that this shelling created new oysters that added to the population. Fact, this improved the harvest. CBF actually said in their commentary that shelling contributed to the high harvest of 84,000 bushels. But in a following section CBF stated that the harvest was not improved by the program. CBF can’t have it both ways. Shelling helped to such a degree that even though it ended in 2006, in the sanctuary period post 2010 the shelly bottom remaining from the program had such a population on it that it was noted in the DNR report.

There is more. It is a basic fact of oyster ecology that live oysters enhance the ecological diversity of a site. This is in CBF literature also. Yet CBF writes the shell program didn’t improve the ecology of the oyster bars. But, with more oysters on the bar, there is an enhanced ecology. Maybe not to the level of an untouched reef, but the addition of shell and oysters do in fact improve the ecology of the bar. Oysters on public bottom are there at least 3 years until they are harvested. They are filtering and providing other ecological values. There is an unforgiveable amount of misinformation and misdirection in this messaging by CBF. You see, CBF, it isn’t as simple as saying nothing happened. In fact it is just wrong to say so.

As for being costly to tax payers, there are a lot of things supported partially or fully by taxes. The repletion effort was funded by tax dollars but some of those taxes came from the oyster industry itself and from fees paid by oystermen and oyster buyers. The repletion program wasn’t a full subsidy and yet none of this information was in Ms. Prost’s commentary. Having looked at the CBF tax returns for 2016 I discovered that the organization took in $364,000.00 from federated grants and also took in$1.55 million dollars in government grants. That is a lot of money to be sadly reflected in commentary missteps and errors. Maybe that tax payer subsidy needs reviewing. At the least the many CBF members should rethink their membership dues and fees and demand more responsibility.

Here are a few questions that I and many others would like for CBF to answer;

Having a declared goal doesn’t automatically make one an expert. Does having the goal of saving the Bay make CBF unquestionably trustworthy?

Does CBF’s “Save the Bay’ reputation justify its misrepresentation of facts, whether by accident or not?

Who peer reviews CBF’s scientific findings (in house or outside contract)?

Why are we plagued with policy makers expecting to be accepted as experts just because they express opinions in areas to which they have no expertise?

CBF policy directors should refrain from mistake ridden, half-truths and out right falsehoods. Policy statements that should be fact based, but are in reality just opinionated commentaries should not be seized upon as opportunities to air personal gripes and grievances. CBF needs to be beyond reproach and factually reliable. But it fails when its directors cherry pick facts, seek only details that feed their confirmation bias, and cloak themselves in the reputation of being selfless and honest. Members in CBF, River and Conservation Associations should expect more honesty from their chosen groups’ leaders. Members should be more than dues paying “slacktivists”, who trust their associations or foundations to do be more honest. Instead members should be more proactive and demand more accountability from their policy makers.

For whom is CBF “saving” the Bay? From whom is CBF “saving’ the bay? Who will you exclude from the Bay when you have saved it?

Marc Castelli

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. J.M. Kramer says:

    This thoughtful commentary keys on a July 5 article in another publication. Without a link to that I am left without a reasonable basis to judge the validity or value of this piece. Please include links to highly relevant articles if you value your readers attention. Thanks.

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