All through the dry, hot summer, Maryland's watermen prayed for enough rain to keep the Chesapeake Bay's oysters healthy.
The rain never came, making watermen nervous as they boarded their boats at dawn yesterday for the first day of oyster season. They returned in the afternoon relieved and guardedly optimistic about the fall harvest.
"It looks like it's going to be a decent season," said Russell Dize, a Tilghman Island tonger who hauled in 15 bushels of plump, healthy oysters .
In previous years, the lack of rain has had a disastrous effect on the oyster harvest by aiding the spread of MSX, a parasite that kills bivalves by the millions. In the salty waters of Tangier Sound, 90 percent of the oyster population has succumbed to the disease.
Though MSX has retreated from the fresher waters of the upper bay, it could return if the salinity increases from prolonged dry weather.
"We've been through that before," said Robert "Pete" Sweitzer, a skipjack captain who can't harvest oysters until the dredging season begins Nov. 1. "We started worrying in June when the heat come on and the rain stopped."
But the oysters on Hackett's Bar at the mouth of Severn River yesterday appeared to be healthy and of good quality, said W. Peter Jensen, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The state spends about $2.5 million a year to seed Hackett's Bar and other oyster beds scattered throughout the bay.
Mr. Jensen said he expects the harvest to reach about 500,000 bushels of oysters -- more than the 415,000 hauled from the bay last year. The bivalves are worth about $10 million at the dock to Maryland's watermen, who have struggled to survive through five years of meager oyster harvests.
It wasn't always so tough to earn a living from the water. A century ago, oysters were the mainstay of the state's seafood industry, and watermen pulled in millions of bushels.
But overharvesting, MSX and another parasite called dermo have reduced the bay's oyster population by 98 percent.
Although 3,000 watermen are licensed to harvest oysters, only about 1,000 still tong and dredge the bay's waters to support themselves and their families.
They never know what kind of year they'll have until they head out on opening day.
"It's like a big gamble," Mr. Sweitzer said. "Our prospects look fairly good this year. We'll make a living. That's good news for watermen."