A Chesapeake Ethic: Sustainability with Technology

Both Wendell Berry in “Renewing Husbandry” and Peter Singer in “A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation” argue that the world needs to completely change the farming industry.  It is argued that animals should be given equal consideration as humans on the farm (Singer) and that farmers need to work with responsible stewardship and move away from the modern methods of maximizing production by returning to the ways of pre-industrial farming (Berry).  The farming process before the industrial revolution was much better for the environment and for the healthiness of the food production process as a whole.  Both Berry and Singer argue that farmers should put for aesthetic value in their food production instead of their current focus on producing faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper products.  I agree with the notion that this would greatly help the environment as industry has significantly hurt the environment, an example being phosphorous pollution from the increased chicken production (Hardesty), as well as help purify the food industry and make it healthier.  However, I disagree with the idea that farmers should revert to their pre-industrial ways and give equal consideration to animals as humans.  It is unreasonable to expect farmers to not use the vast amount of technology now available today to them to make their jobs easier and maximize their crop and monetary yield.  If we are to fix the vast array of problems associated with the Chesapeake Bay, we need to have a more profound respect for the bay but also for the people.  We need to find a way to build a sustainable farming process while still incorporating the remarkable technology available to everyone today.

As 4th generation Maryland Eastern Shore chicken farmer Jennifer Rhodes said, “If you expect us to give up the technology we use to produce these chickens, you first give up your cell phone” (personal communication, December 3rd, 2015).  The technology available to everyone today allows people to operate at levels never before seen in this world and very few people would voluntarily give that up.  It would be unethical to expect this sort of drastic reform from farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  If we are to save the bay, the conservationist who wants to protect the Chesapeake Bay from pollutants and other environmental issues and the farmer who needs to produce to feed his family need to work together.  Asking farmers to give up their technology and limiting their production and ability to make money creates animosity that cannot exist if we hope to create the desired environment of compromise to fix the bay.  I agree that we need to find a more sustainable method of farming, but reverting back to pre-industrial ways is not the answer.  While farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed should have an ethical responsibility to protect the environment, they should also have an ethical responsibility to feed the meteorically rising population.  To do this, they need to maximize their production capacity and this involves using as much technology as possible.  The world today has a vast array of knowledge and technology that we have never been able to work with before.  Using this, we have the capability to come up with a sustainable and revolutionary solution that incorporates this extraordinary technology.

Reverting back to the preindustrial way of farming and incorporating a method of farming that emphasizes care of the animal and other products would be a fantastic way of improving the environment.  However, there needs to be harmony in society as well as the natural environment to truly create the Chesapeake Bay we all want and forcing farmers to abandon farming methods while limiting their production capacity would threaten this.  An ethical view of the unfortunate situation regarding the Chesapeake Bay that I have developed and we all should consider is that while we need to do everything we can to help return the estuary to its healthy form that provided all animals important ecosystem services, we cannot do so while sacrificing the livelihoods of the people.  We cannot expect farmers to completely change their ways and abandon technology that helps them produce enough to not only feed their family but the seven billion people around the world.  Instead, we can incorporate this technology and use it to create a sustainable ecosystem that helps the species of the bay as well as the people who make a living there.

Works Cited

Berry, W. (2005). “Renewing Husbandry.” Orion Magazine.

Hardesty, M. (2015). Eutrophication [Powerpoint Slides].

Singer, P. (2001). “A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation.” Environmental Ethics.


The Journey to Sustainable Shrimp Farming in Belize

As with many countries along a coastline, Belize thrives off of its marine harvest.  Belize’s aquatic harvest, particularly its shrimp yield, makes up a significant portion of its gross domestic product.  Shrimp farms along Belize’s coastline began emerging in the late 20th century in order to industrialize the shrimp harvest and make the process more efficient.  It is easy to see what was attractive about this idea as the coastal wetlands seemed like a natural development target to increase Belize’s potential financially. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to help the brand new country’s market and global notoriety grow, and the industry grew to be valued at $42.14 million in 2004 after only 22 years of existence (Hardesty).  This makes this industry essential to Belize’s prosperity economically.  However, this directly led to an onslaught of environmental issues that shrimp farmers at the time were either not aware of or did not care about.  Belize has a problem with their shrimp farming practices as it has degraded their resiliency to pollution along their coastline; they need to find a more sustainable way of using this important industry.

Much of the shrimp farm development along the coast displaced the mangrove swamps that are vital filtration systems.  Many shrimp farms could be seen outside of our plane window during our arrival in Belize and there were no mangrove forests in sight.  It was a very short-sighted move by Belize, and the long-term result could be disastrous.  Belize’s fisheries and offshore barrier reefs and islands are in a precarious position without these natural filtration systems.  The loss of the natural mangrove swamp filtration system makes Belize’s inner sea vulnerable to the eutrophication associated with agricultural runoff.  We have seen the same thing in the Chesapeake Bay as agriculture has taken the place of many natural filtration systems making the bay susceptible to eutrophication.  This influx of nutrients from the agriculture in Belize is not the only form of pollution as the shrimp farming process itself is also a source.  The shrimp feed is high in nitrogen, and the shrimp only retain roughly 25 percent of the nitrogen in the feed and release the remaining 75 percent into the surrounding ecosystem (Hardesty).  This means that Belize has taken away filtration systems and replaced them with sources of pollution.  As a result, the nutrient levels in Belize’s inner sea have skyrocketed since the industry started in 1982.

The entire industry came under heavy scrutiny in 2004 due to serious violations of environmental standards and heavy losses from disease (Hardesty).  The system in place at the time left Belize in a difficult situation because the new country was benefitting considerably financially but there were a plethora of environmental issues that came with it.  Despite the large amount of money the industry was making Belize they were forced to make some changes, and as a result shrimp aquaculture production dropped off dramatically from 11,000 tons to 3,000 tons in the next two years (Hardesty).  Quite a few companies were forced out of the industry in this chaotic and controversial era of Belize aquaculture, most notably the prominent company Belize Aquaculture.  The industry took a major hit financially, but it was necessary for the environmental changes that needed to happen.  The situation the industry finds itself in today is a significant improvement over what it was like in 2004 and the industry is slowly making a comeback in a more sustainable way.  There is a less harvest in this era and the harvest is more environmentally conscious with closed systems that involve no exchange with the surrounding ecosystem and the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue (ShAD) that is spearheading a new standard for environmental health.  The industry realized it has a problem and found some solutions, and many current companies are working with ShAD to improve on the environmental issues surrounding shrimp aquaculture.

Belize has taken noteworthy steps to fix their aquaculture problems in the last decade, but there is still work to be done to help create a sustainable shrimp farming system that benefits both the economy and the environment.  As William Cronon points out, the flaw we have when attempting to understand and control nature and wildness is that we lack a basic understanding of what wildness is and how it functions.  This leads to unforeseen and unfortunate results when we try to integrate ourselves with nature (Cronon).  Belize attempted to work against the natural world for financial reasons and the results were catastrophic.  A sustainable shrimp farming process in Belize is achievable and they are now on the right path.  The system is currently being revolutionized and the future looks bright for shrimp aquaculture in Belize.

Works Cited

Cronon, W. (1995). The Trouble with Wilderness: A Response. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69-90.

Hardesty, M. (2015). Threats to the Coast [Powerpoint Slides].

It’s Time to Embrace a Revolutionized Oyster Harvest

Once upon a time there was a Chesapeake Bay area culture dependent on oysters.  The sessile mollusks native to the large estuary on the east coast of the United States drove the economy, industry and appetite of the mid-Atlantic United States from the early 19th century to well into the 20th century.  This is no longer the case as oyster population has deteriorated to a dismal 0.3 percent of its population from the early 19th century.  As a culture, we have relentlessly bullied this species that John Smith once described as astoundingly thick and plentiful since populating the east coast of the North American continent.  There are a number of similarly detrimental reasons for this including disease, over-harvesting, habitat loss, and poor water quality, and they have combined to force extraordinary suffering on a species of incredible importance to the Chesapeake Bay’s health.  With today’s water quality and erosion issues enveloping the entire estuary, the filter feeder and shoreline protector’s absence has never been more apparent.  Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem in the form of the aquaculture, and it is time to fully embrace this as a society as the harvesting technique of the future.  For this reason, we need to stop harvesting oysters the natural way and make a bay-wide transition to oyster farming.

A big obstacle for this plan would be attempting to convince Chesapeake Bay watermen to abandon the craft they have practiced their entire life in order to take up aquaculture.  One of the biggest and relatively historical underlying issues with declining oyster populations is overharvesting as we have taken oysters out of the bay for centuries at an unsustainable rate.  They have historically been a big target because there has been a great deal of potential money to be made in the business and also the fact that they are so easy to “catch” due to their sessile nature (Livie).  The unfathomable amount of people involved in this practice during the 19th and early 20th century left a powerful watermen culture on the shores on the Chesapeake Bay that still exists today.  These people, who have incredibly deep roots in the watermen lifestyle, do not want to give up their culture that has been in their family for generations in many cases.  One’s culture is frequently directly related to one’s surrounding environment because the surrounding ecosystem is so important for survival (Seidel).  For the waterman, this ecosystem was the oysters and their culture and lifestyle was enveloped by them.  It is extremely hard to give something like that up, but that is what needs to happen for the good of our surrounding ecosystem.

Timothy Devine, owner of Barren Island Oysters from Hoopers Island, Maryland, has been practicing aquaculture for five years now.  He said that the Maryland system still needs work because he had no idea what he was doing when he started out and that some of the laws were “absurd” and that there is “no flexibility with stuff.”  Despite this, he believes aquaculture to be the way of the future, even stating that we should be exclusively using the method of aquaculture over natural harvest, and takes great pride in his high quality business.  Barren Island Oysters are very proud of their environmentally friendly business and their business model states that they are “sustainably raised and responsibly harvested.”

We have operated for centuries with a manifest destiny ideology when it comes to resources.  We have thought we can take whatever we need from the environment without any future consequences.  William Cronon points out that this may be a result of a fundamental flaw on how we view nature and wildness as separate from us.  This type of mindset leads us to not consider the negative effect on us when we try to change or alter nature (Cronon).  Regardless, we have dealt with finite resources with an infinite mindset, either not realizing the future problems that would ensue, not caring about them, or figuring there would be some remarkable technological advancement that would fix everything.  Today, technology has given us an answer.  Oyster farming gives us the opportunity to continue to consume oysters without any negative effects on the environment while waiting for the natural oysters to recover.  It is time to fully embrace this as a society.

Works Cited

Cronon, W. (1995). The Trouble with Wilderness: A Response. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69-90.

Livie, K (2015). Oysters [Powerpoint Slides].

Seidel, J. (2015). Science and Society – Part 1 [Powerpoint slides].

Pamunkey Shad Hatchery: Is it Ethical?

We recently had the opportunity to visit the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in West Point, Virginia.  The Pamunkey Indian tribe has been living with Shad as a big part of their culture and lifestyle for hundreds of years.  They have been connected in a mutually beneficial relationship long before the white man came over from Europe.  They have grown with the fish and developed new ways of cooking and preserving the animal such as slow roasting over a fire to remove the bones and, more recently, the development of fish hatcheries.  But many people view the continued operation of catching shad as unethical because of the extensive issues facing the fish.  The Native Americans have long practiced the philosophy that everything they take out of nature should be put back in, and there is a reason that John Smith described the biological world in 1607 America to be so thick and plentiful.  Unfortunately, ever since John Smith wrote down that thought, the biology in the Chesapeake has suffered.  What came with John Smith and his mates was centuries of stress on the Chesapeake Bay, most notably from overfishing and pollution.  As a result, we as a culture have lost the right to fish certain endangered species out of the bay.  However, that is only our culture, because the Native American culture should not be blamed for this situation and should be able to continue in their practice of catching Shad.

A lecture featuring Kate Livie showed how the amount of Shad in the Chesapeake Bay region has been dramatically reduced over the last century due to overfishing, decreased water quality and the installation of dams preventing the fish from swimming up-river.  They are very sensitive to water quality and will not survive in an area with a high concentration of nutrients (Livie).  Since the white man’s culture has been continuously throwing nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay watershed through agriculture for decades, the Shad have noticeably and dramatically suffered.  Mrs. Livie noted that in 1979 there were only 50 shad in the entire Susquehanna River.  This fish was a huge part of all nearby cultures and our society as a whole before it virtually disappeared.  It was so prominent that everyone around in the early 20th century would be shocked and appalled that many of the younger people in the 21st century have never even tasted it.  This is a fish that everyone ate 100 years ago and has now almost absent from the Chesapeake Bay watershed we love to take advantage of.  There is a certain culture responsible for this and it is not the one that believes in replacing everything they take from nature.

The Pamunkey fish hatchery does a tremendous job of replacing whatever they catch back into the Pamunkey River.  We recently had the opportunity to talk to Warren Cook, a Pamunkey native who has worked with the hatchery flowing Shad eggs back into the river for over half a century.  He showed us how hundreds of thousands of Shad are put back into the river every year.  Warren Cook was very concerned about Shad numbers because they have been in a down cycle for the past couple of years.  He was worried that the low Shad numbers could motivate the state government to move to cut funding for the operation in an attempt to help the Shad population.  Warren shared with us that their main goals while catching Shad is to eat it but also to sell it.  Both the shad and the shad roe especially command high prices due to the lack of supply (W. Cook, personal communication, September 14, 2015).  This should not be an issue with anyone because the Pamunkey tribe have always had the Shad’s best interest in mind and has made every effort to restore any damage done.  It is the other part of our society that has ruined the Shad population and the Pamunkey should not be punished for this.

Dr. John Seidel said during a social science lecture that culture stems from the environment and is directly related to the surrounding ecosystem.  It is often shaped by the surrounding biological world (Seidel).  Shad has been a huge part of the Pamunkey tribe culture for hundreds of years and would and should be today if it was not for mistakes made out of their control.  Pamunkey Indians should have the opportunity to harvest Shad because it is such a big and important part of their culture.

Works Cited

Livie, K. (2015). Shad Fishing on the Chesapeake [Powerpoint slides].

Seidel, J. (2015). Science and Society – Part 1 [Powerpoint slides].