Spending Money without Saving Oysters:

The federal and state governments have spent some $58 million in an effort to conserve oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, to little avail.

Since 1994, state and federal authorities have poured these millions into rejuvenating the famous bivalves and the centuries-old industry that relies on them.

They have succeeded at neither.

Instead, official estimates show there are fewer oysters in the bay and fewer oystermen trying to catch them. If those estimates are accurate, the effort would be a failure of environmental policy that stands out for its scale, even on a bay where policymakers frequently promise big and deliver small.

Scientists and activists say the missteps of the save-the-oyster campaign will have consequences far beyond the half-shell bar. The whole Chesapeake will struggle, they say, missing a species that was as vital to its ecosystem as coral reefs are to theirs.

Among other things, state officials have done little to limit oyster harvesting, and have skimped on investment in artificial oyster habitat.

Another objection has to do with the design of government-built oyster habitats. Some scientists say they should be a foot or more tall, so oysters stay out of the mud. But, in both states, officials continue to build many shorter reefs.

"It's just more expensive to try to do" a larger reef, said Jim Wesson of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. He said the height had little effect.

In the Great Wicomico River in Virginia's Northern Neck, a group led by the Corps of Engineers says it is proving otherwise. It built a taller reef and watched oysters spread across it: about 183 million of them. When a metal dredge was raked over the reef, it came up full of big, stone-colored oysters.

Prior studies have found that the success of oyster populations correlates with underlying property institutions. In short, where coastal owners can benefit from actions to protect or enhance oyster populations, oysters seem to do better. Without question Chesapeake oyster populations face many threats, but the Great Wicomico River experiment suggests efforts to encourage greater stewardship might well pay off.