It was just after noon when Eric Cantler docked the Diana at the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative in Annapolis. On the bottom of his workboat glistened a dark, wet heap of oysters -- early returns on the first day of Maryland's 1991-92 oyster season.
Cantler, who has been oystering since he got out of school 20-some years ago, said yesterday that there seem to be a few more oysters on the Chesapeake Bay bottom this fall than there were last year.
"It's better," he said, as he and his son-in-law, Robert Sullivan, prepared to shovel their day's harvest into a bushel-sized metal bucket for transfer to wheelbarrows on the dock.
That was the cautiously upbeat message that Maryland officials were trying to send as well. They ferried television news crews and print reporters out to see Cantler's boat and several others dredging oysters just south of Annapolis.
"There are a lot of oysters out here," declared William Sieling, chief of seafood marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "Our concern is to find markets for them."
There certainly were a lot of watermen on the bay looking for oysters. An aerial survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources tallied close to 350 workboats, with many of them clustered along the Western Shore north of the mouth of the Patuxent River.
"There's too many boats out there," complained Cantler, who noted that many watermen were jumping into oystering because clams died off this summer and prices for crabs have been down this year. As a result, the price watermen were getting for their oysters yesterday was only $14 to $15 a bushel, down from $20 to $30 last year.
With more watermen out there, the oyster harvest this fall and winter might be bigger than last year's haul of 415,000 bushels, predicted William P. Jensen, DNR's fisheries director.
Harvests have increased slightly the past two years from their all-time low in 1988 of only 363,000 bushels. But DNR officials acknowledge that it is just as likely that this year's harvest will be down, as will next year's, because of poor reproduction a few years ago.
And the outlook for the foreseeable future remains clouded by the threat posed by two mysterious parasitic oyster diseases that have ravaged the bay's shellfish stocks the past five years.
DNR officials said oyster reproduction was good last year, and preliminary surveys indicate that this past summer produced a bumper crop of "spat," or young oysters. The drought has made the bay saltier, they noted, which tends to boost oyster procreation.
But salty water and warm weather also are ideal conditions for the spread of MSX and Dermo, the two diseases that, although harmless to humans, are deadly to oysters.
"It's a Catch-22," observed Roy Scott, a DNR biologist.
DNR officials say they have detected MSX again this year in Tangier Sound, two years after it had all but disappeared from Maryland waters. The more virulent of the two diseases, MSX can kill practically all the shellfish on infected bars in a year's time.
Of more immediate concern is Dermo, which, though less deadly for oysters, is spread throughout the bay south of the Bay Bridge.
Scott says it won't be known until DNR surveys oyster bars later this fall whether MSX or Dermo really are spreading, or if they are killing off many oysters.
Though hopeful that harvests could rebound in three or four years if the diseases do not worsen, Scott said he did not know if oysters ever would recover to where they were in the 1970s and early 1980s, when watermen regularly hauled in 1 million to 2 million bushels annually. Scientists estimate that the bay's oyster stocks now are only 1 percent of what they were a century ago.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has urged Maryland and Virginia to try imposing a three-year oyster moratorium to give the shellfish stocks a better chance to recover more quickly without being undermined by harvest pressures.
William Goldsborough, the bay foundation's fisheries scientist, said he shared the watermen's hope that oysters are going to rebound some. But he said he also hopes that the state is as interested in restoring oysters for their pollution-filtering benefits as in promoting their consumption.
DNR officials continue to insist that a ban would not work and would instead finish off the rest of the state's oyster industry, which still is worth about $15 million annually, by some estimates.
"Managing around the [disease] problem is the best we can do," maintained Jensen.