ON THE LITTLE CHOPTANK RIVER -- The sun had been up less than three hours when the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark hauled its dredges out of the Little Choptank for the last time and headed toward Tilghman Island.
The 105-year-old workboat was loaded to its gunwales on this warm April morning, and Capt. Wade Murphy had to struggle with the wheel to hold it on a straight course.
Finally over an oyster bar, four crewmen shoveled the 5 1/2 -foot-high pile overboard. Some 850 bushels of oyster shells, splattered with a million coin-sized baby oysters, called spat, sank to the river bottom near the island.
Several dozen other boat crews were also transplanting the spat-covered shells from the Little Choptank in a project that will produce full-grown oysters that watermen can harvest three years from now on oyster bars around the Chesapeake.
This yearly process of moving spat-covered shells, called seed oysters, from one river bottom to another is part of a program considered by watermen and environmentalists alike to be one of the best hopes for reviving Maryland's declining oyster industry -- and also improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
But despite the program's positive effects, the state, trying to cope with a projected deficit, cut its funding back to $650,000 and does not plan to provide any more than that from general funds next year.
"When they started the shell program 30 years ago, I think it was what brought the oysters back," said Captain Murphy, who can remember a time in the early 1960s when oyster harvests declined at an alarming rate. "The shell program saved the oyster business."
New taxes proposed and supported by the watermen -- and now awaiting Gov. William Donald Schaefer's signature -- could bring in another $1 million specifically for the shell program. But that still leaves it far short of the $4 million the state provided last year.
The proposed new taxes include a $300 user surcharge that oystermen will have to pay on top of their regular license fee of $50 to $300; an increase in the tax assessed against each bushel of oysters harvested; and an inspection tax assessed on oysters sold out of state.
Bill Outten, project leader of the shell program for the state Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Division, said that the state hopes to have enough money to continue planting shells on seed beds where spat historically have set well, then transplanting the spat.
However, he said the state will probably reduce or eliminate another part of the program -- the spreading of shells on natural oyster bars.
Since spat need a hard surface, such as shells, to adhere to in order to mature, spreading shells on depleted beds and bars is essential to the reproduction of the oyster.
The man-made oyster beds will be spread with shell first because the spat count can run as high as 1,500 per bushel on a bed, compared with as little as 20 to 30 spat found in a bushel of shells put on natural oyster bars, Mr. Outten said.
But the low spat count on natural bars spread with shells doesn't mean the shells were wasted. The shells also serve the purpose of rebuilding the base of the bar, elevating it from the river or bay bottom.
"When an oyster bar is flat, it is much more likely to be silted over," said Bill Goldsborough, staff scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. If not restocked with shells, the bar would disappear over time as it was worked by watermen, he said.
If the state fails to fund the shell program fully, not only would the oyster industry suffer, but the health of the bay would also be adversely affected in a few years, Mr. Goldsborough said.
"The benefits of a healthy oyster resource go far beyond the dockside value of the oyster," Mr. Goldsborough said. "A full-grown oyster filters 50 to 60 gallons of water a day."
Consequently, having an abundant supply of oysters is like having a filter system constantly removing sediment from the bay, he said.
In addition, "A whole food web goes on over an oyster bed," Mr. Goldsborough said. Worms, small crabs and tiny organisms thrive on an oyster bar and become food for fish, contributing to the food chain in the bay, he said.
"Any fisherman will tell you that the best place to fish in the bay is over an oyster bar," Mr. Goldsborough said.
In the past six years, since the parasites MSX and Dermo have spread up the bay and wiped out large populations of oysters, the shell replenishment program has been more important to the survival of the oyster in the Chesapeake than ever.
So, state biologists sampling the seed oysters this month were happy to find that the two state-run oyster beds, in the Little Choptank River off Dorchester County and in Kedges Straits off Somerset County, produced a good spat set of an average of 1,360 per bushel.
When the transplanting of seed oysters is finished next month, almost 400 million young oysters will have been moved from the oyster beds to productive bars. If disease can be controlled, these oysters will support several seasons of harvests.
Mr. Goldsborough, however, believes it is not enough for the state to operate a shell program that barely maintains a skeletal oyster industry.
"We somehow have got to have a net increase in oysters in the bay," Mr. Goldsborough said.
One answer to the dual problems of declining water quality and oyster harvests may be to create oyster sanctuaries where large stocks of brood oysters can flourish and produce abundant spat without threat of harvest.
Then there might come a time when an expensive shell program might not be as crucial to the survival of the oysters, Mr. Goldsborough said.