Oyster season in Maryland still has two days to go. But for Louis Sears Jr., it ended last week, perhaps for good.
The Taylor's Island waterman says he has so little to show for the past six months of plucking oysters from the bottom using long, scissors-shaped tongs that he has finally reached the end of his rope. After five years of meager harvests from the once-bountiful Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Sears, 41, says he may give up his lifelong pursuit of the bivalve.
"I won't work another winter for what I worked this winter," he said. "I refuse to." In the last few weeks, when it wasn't too windy to go out, he was only able to scrape up 3 or 4 bushels of oysters a day at best, far below the 15-bushel limit set by the state.
The frustration in Mr. Sears's voice is echoed by watermen and seafood dealers from one end of the bay to another. It has been another poor harvest, perhaps the worst ever, for the Chesapeake, which once supplied the world with oysters.
Incomplete reports from seafood dealers indicate that Maryland's oyster catch, depressed since the late 1980s by shellfish diseases, will be down still more this year.
The harvest this season is likely to be less than 400,000 bushels, predicted W. Pete Jensen, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It may not be much more than 300,000 bushels.
Last year's harvest was 418,000 bushels, up only slightly from the all-time low of just 363,000 bushels in 1987-1988. Just 20 years ago, Maryland watermen landed nearly 3 million bushels.
Slumping consumer demand for oysters played a role in depressing the harvest, say officials.
They blamed it on the recession. But others attribute it to news reports raising questions about the safety of eating seafood, even though the two parasitic diseases afflicting Chesapeake Bay's oysters are not harmful to humans.
Oysters are not in imminent danger of disappearing, state fisheries officials maintain. Last summer's "spat set," or crop of young new oysters, was outstanding, Mr. Jensen said, and recent surveys suggest there are still "hundreds of millions of oysters out there."
But the dwindling harvest is renewing calls for fisheries officials in Maryland and Virginia to take bold steps to break the downward spiral in what was once the mainstay of the Chesapeake's seafood industry.
"Every day that goes by, the problem becomes more and more critical," said Dr. Brian J. Rothschild, a fisheries researcher at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. "We need to get on top of the situation."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation last year called for a three-year bay-wide moratorium on harvests to give oysters a chance to recover from MSX and Dermo, the two parasitic diseases that have decimated them.
The Annapolis-based environmental group's call was angrily denounced by watermen and rejected by fisheries officials. They maintained that a moratorium would do no good, since disease would claim any oysters not harvested.
But the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, that state's leading fisheries research agency, earlier this year echoed the bay foundation's call for a moratorium. It said that the state must "protect the resource for its ecological value" while efforts continue to restore the devastated oyster populations.
Virginia's oyster industry has fallen on even harder times than Maryland's. Though the season there runs through June, the harvest is running behind last year's record low of 112,000 bushels, according to Jack G. Travelstead, chief of fisheries management for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The state will air proposals for restricting harvests in Virginia next month.
So desperate have Virginians become that a blue-ribbon governor's task force there recommends putting Japanese oysters in the bay to see if they can survive. Japanese oysters have been successfully introduced on America's West Coast, in France and in several other countries, advocates note.
Virginia's fisheries scientists have pledged to use only sterilized Japanese oysters in the bay to prevent them from reproducing and possibly crowding out the native bay oysters, as some fear might happen.
But even that limited experiment is opposed by Maryland officials, environmentalists and some scientists. They warn that introducing an "exotic" species to the bay could unleash a new bacteria or disease that could further devastate native species.
Japanese oysters may not be able to survive in Chesapeake waters, said Mr. Jensen, Maryland's fisheries director. A batch exposed to bay water in the state's Deal Island oyster hatchery all died from a common local strain of bacteria, he said.
Maryland officials say the only thing they can do is try to cope with conditions while scientists search for a cure or a way of breeding hardier oysters. A team of seven Maryland and Virginia researchers has received a $310,000 grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service this year to study how Dermo weakens and kills oysters.