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CBF’s Oyster Campaign Is More Fundraising Scheme Than Meaningful Solution

Just before the presidential election, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sent me a letter asking me for money.

Many of you probably received the same fund-raising letter from the nonprofit group, urging financial support for their oyster planting campaign.

The letter said,  “You can help bring back the oysters and save the Bay!  Your gift to CBF of just $18 will help us plant 1,800 oysters… Larger gifts will help us do even more!”

Along with the letter came a bright yellow slip of paper with what it called an important update. The note assured voters: “Our work has always been bipartisan, because we know that the health of the Bay – and the people and wildlife that live in the watershed -- is not political.”

This final bit – about saving the Bay being non-political – is not really true, although it is probably effective as fundraising language among CBF’s wealthy donors who enjoy oysters. The fact is, environmental laws and policies are inherently political. This is because they usually require votes by elected officials who are members of political parties and must make decisions that are almost always controversial because they involve some kind of economic compromise for the common good.  The truth is, President Trump and his Republican supporters were probably the biggest obstacles to the Bay cleanup effort in the 53-year history of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

CBF knows this, because it filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s EPA on September 10 for its failure to enforce a 2010 Bay cleanup agreement and by allowing Pennsylvania to dump on its downstream neighbors.

Twice, the Trump Administration tried to eliminate 100 percent of funding from the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program. Trump’s EPA also undermined the Bay cleanup by weakening or eliminating more than 80 environmental regulations, including by stripping federal protections from at least 34,000 acres of wetlands in the Chesapeake region.  

In the end, President Trump lost his re-election bid. But the vote was fairly close in Pennsylvania, where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has thousands of members. Swing voters in Pennsylvania might have been better informed by a more politically active, aggressive, and candid conservation organization.

To become more politically active, CBF might have to alter its current nonpartisan tax status and create a separate Chesapeake political action fund. But other environmental groups have taken this step successfully. And it is time that the Bay had some political muscle and a major organization fighting for it – not just fundraisers capitalizing on it.

After receiving CBF’s fundraising letter, I declined to give money to their campaign – in part because it does not go nearly far enough to protect the Bay’s oysters. In reality, it is more of an emotionally-based fundraising scheme than an effective policy that would “Save the Bay.”

I say this as a former CBF employee who worked as the organization’s senior writer for almost six years (2008 to 2014), researching and writing most of CBF’s major reports, including one of their in-depth reports on oyster restoration policies.

The problem is this:  CBF wants your money to plant oysters.  But because the action would be politically controversial, the organization remains silent about what would really be needed to restore a healthy oyster population:  A temporary ban on dredging for wild oysters in the Bay. To recover from its degraded condition, the Bay needs a moratorium on the dragging of heavy, metal rake-like devices with bags across the bottom, which rips up oyster reefs and destroys habitat for blue crabs and fish.

Power dredging and other destructive harvesting techniques have played a leading role in the catastrophic decline of oysters around the world, including in the Chesapeake. Today, only about one percent of the Bay’s oyster historic population remains. In many areas – especially in the northern Chesapeake – the Bay bottom today is a muddy wasteland.  Yes, diseases and pollution have contributed to this tragedy. But the bulk of the historic gutting of the Bay’s reefs came from overharvesting.

It is time for Maryland and Virginia to shift 100 percent to oyster farming and aquaculture, which is lucrative for watermen and growing rapidly as an alternative industry. A moratorium on wild oyster harvesting would give the wild oysters a rest until they can reproduce and recover, and once again resume their filtering of the Bay’s waters.

What CBF is promoting – planting oysters, but not protecting the Bay as an oyster sanctuary – has been attempted before, and it failed. Back in the 1990s, taxpayer-funded programs planted more than five billion oysters in the bay. But then watermen just came by and scooped them out again and sold them, including through poaching in protected areas – which remains a major problem. 

So if you receive the letter that I got from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, send it back to them not with money, but with a note, saying: Grow a spine, CBF. Stand up for what you say you believe in.  Take action to protect the Bay’s keystone species before it is gone.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.  The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at [email protected].

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.