Environmental Film Festival Review: Who Killed Crassostrea Virginica?

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A mass grave lies on the seafloor of the Chesapeake Bay. What was once a living reef of oysters is now hundreds of thousands of shelled caskets, battered by sediment and tides.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery, once a main source of commerce for communities there. Fishermen would easily harvest boatloads of the shellfish. They thought the supply was endless.

So what happened? That’s the questions posed by Who Killed Crassostrea Virginica? The Fall and Rise of the Chesapeake Oyster, a documentary that premiered on Friday at Washington D.C.’s Environmental Film Festival. Produced and directed by Michael Fincham, the film shows how the fishery collapse affected watermen and how science is trying to bring the oysters back.

Though a compelling story, one of the film’s weaknesses was its moderate approach to the problem. Fincham depicts the watermen and scientists as allies, whose common purpose is to replenish the Bay with oysters. There may be truth to this, but it neglects a very real controversy. The watermen want to keep up a tradition that died decades ago. Meanwhile, the scientists want the oyster reefs back to restore lost ecosystems.

It was the lack of human versus human conflict that made the film slightly dull. You sit through at least five minutes of an oysterman talking about how beautiful oyster fishing is, complete with historical reenactments of his younger self on a boat, before the film reveals what actually killed the oysters. It wasn’t overfishing, as one might expect, but a parasite from Japan.

Once the audience knows a parasite is the main culprit, Fincham covers the search for its mysterious origin.  A bit of suspense is added with the revelation that an oyster biologist who worked in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1960s and 1970s may have accidentally introduced the parasite while studying how well Japanese oysters survive in the bay; those oysters have developed defenses to the parasite and may carry it.

Fincher goes through great pains not to point fingers, keeping the problem entirely ecological. However, it would be naive to think the fishermen don’t blame the scientists to some extent or vice versa, opinions that were left out of the film.

Fincham does deserve credit for trying to tell such a difficult story. The challenge is that there are no concrete answers to what killed the Chesapeake oyster.  In addition to the biologist’s accidental introduction, possible origins of the Japanese parasite include early experiments by oyster farmers and the ballast waters from American warships docked in the Bay.

While the film brings in some nice visuals, such as the “ghost warships” and footage showing baby oysters swimming, it doesn’t take advantage of its bizarre cast of characters. Why do the scientists care so much about the state of Chesapeake Bay’s oysters? Do they think the restoration efforts are worth the trouble? As a record of the events and science surrounding the oyster fishery over the past hundred years, the documentary does very well. What it lacked was the ability to answer why this issue is relevant today. We still get oysters, granted from farming or other parts of the world, so why work so hard to grow them in a place teeming in deadly parasites?

Despite the documentary’s problems, it still makes for an informative hour of viewing. Learning how quickly nature can sour, via disease or depleted stocks, is a powerful reminder that an endless ocean is only an illusion.

-- Written by Joseph Caputo

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