Unlimited Access and its Impacts on Keystone Species: Chesapeake Bay vs. Peru

No matter where you are in the world, no matter the ecosystem or climate keystone species, as the name implies, are very important. In the Chesapeake Bay the oyster has been thought of as a type of keystone species especially in our past. Years ago the oyster populations were high, higher than many other species in the bay. An oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water per day, helping maintain a healthy aquatic habitat for a number of species. Early settlers came to the area surrounding the bay to find oysters that were so large they had to be cut in half to eat. Oysters as large as 14 inches were surprisingly quite common. So how did we go from having large plentiful oyster populations to our current desperate state today?…. Access.

In the late 18th century oysters were a heavily consumed food item. The colonists relative distance to the water provided a steady food source especially during the winter months. Oyster harvests hit a record high among the people who had the means to access the resource. With an introduction of more efficient technologies access to oysters that were deeper in the water column and more difficult to get to became common practices.

In Peru, anchoveta are also considered a keystone species in a number of ways. Anchoveta, a fish that grows to approximately 4 inches is found in massive numbers in the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Peru. Anchoveta forms the base of the food chain for the majority of carnivorous species in the ocean. Their importance is unparalleled by any other species in the area. Without the high availability of anchoveta the ecosystem would crash due to a loss of primary trophic food level.

For years the anchoveta fishery has been driven by a need for fish meal. The plentiful and inexpensive fish makes it an ideal candidate for this type of production. With Peru’s location on the water the ease of access to the fish is one of the reasons it is such a huge economic input into this undeveloped country.

Anchoveta Boats like these are seen tied down during the afternoon, as fishermen typically go out in the early morning.

Anchoveta Boats like these are seen tied down during the afternoon, as fishermen typically go out in the early morning.

Today the Chesapeake Bay and Peru face two very different issues surrounding the oyster and anchoveta fisheries. In bay the oyster population is less than 1% of what it once was during its historical market period. In Peru the anchovy are used for fish meal for other fish, poultry and livestock feed. During the consumption only 10% of the energy of the fish is transferred to the next trophic level ie. the consumer. Organizations like CSA believe that if the anchovy was transformed in the eyes of the Peruvian culture that the fishery would be more sustainable. Opening a market that is geared to direct human consumption rather than secondary consumption could create a higher potential profit.

The oyster and anchoveta populations are more alike than not. People viewed oysters as an infinite resource and because of this they were quickly forced to take action to limit access on its harvesting. Today we are feeling the effects of the lack of regulation and enforcement of the resource in the oysters past. The anchoveta is historically viewed as a poor mans food, and because of this 90% of its energy is lost during its procession into fish meal. Today Peru is missing out on a potential increase in net profit that could come from conversion to direct human consumption.

The same fishing boats seen here have been passed down through generations.

The same fishing boats seen here have been passed down through generations.

Access is regulated by a number of aspects. The availability of a resource, the ease of access, management and enforcement are things that determine where, what and how much of something we can obtain. Federal regulations and management practices were implemented to restrict our access to oysters and fish that were of a certain size or caught in specific areas. Restrictions on technology like dredges, and on days and times to harvest are among things seen in the history of the oyster access regulations. State and federal regulations are void if they are not enforced. Laws can be passed and implemented and yet still if there is no enforcement or penalty to breaking these regulations then there is no sense in even having laws. Access to the resources needs to be regulated in order to protect it from depletion by our greed driven desire to get the most that we can.

Without protection of the oysters and anchoveta the extent to which their depletion will have is unclear, additionally we must consider how detrimental their unlimited access could be to their individual ecosystems. Both species play a crucial role in their ecological habitats as I have highlighted. Unlimited access to these resources would surely have negative impacts that could reach unthinkable levels.

Unlimited access to Chesapeake Bay oysters would undoubtedly drive the native population extinct. Watermen would take the unregulated practices to their fullest extent and it would only be a short time before there was nothing left for the taking. The loss of this species would surely degrade the condition of the health of water. With fewer oysters to help filter the water nutrients and toxins would build up in the water and eventually lead to the decline in other dependent species.

Unlimited access to the peruvian anchoveta would not be far from where it is today. There are regulations in place but lack of enforcement of these restrictions voids them from having much validity, if any at all. Without the cultural change in the way that the fish is viewed, the market for the fish meal will continue to remain as a stable income for many fishermen.

One concern that I have when comparing the two ecosystems is how unlimited access and other factors can contribute to the depletion of a species. The oyster was once thought of as infinite, there was so many it was absurd to think that they would over time begin to reduce as drastically as they did. Other factors that we as humans cannot always account for are things like disease. Dermo and MSX, the two most common diseases affecting the Bay Oyster could not have been predicted by anyone. I fear that the anchoveta fishery, although arguably sustainable now, could face a similar fate that the oyster has. With a crash in the anchoveta population the Peruvian fishermen would have no other option to turn to. Limits on access to resources like oysters and anchovy have different consequences depending on their extent and goals. In order to prevent an ecological catastrophe like the one we are experiencing in the bay, I think that the Peruvian government should consider its regulations on access to anchoveta fishery, especially because of the widespread impacts that can be felt by the success or loss of such an important species.

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