The state of the oyster

September 17, 1992

On the eve of another delayed oyster season, watermen environmentalists and state officials agree that things look bleak for the bivalve in the bay. That's where their agreement ends.

For the sixth straight year, the state has delayed the traditional start of the oyster season in Chesapeake Bay, from mid-September to Oct. 1. The delay is to relieve fishing pressure on the species, although the situation has worsened, not improved, since the delayed seasons began in 1987. There is no denial that the oyster industry is sick. The debate is over the extent and the remedies.

Environmentalists -- in particular the Chesapeake Bay Foundation -- believe the state must further restrict the harvest. The foundation last year proposed a moratorium on oystering, as the state imposed in 1985 to restore the rockfish.

The idea naturally riled the state's corps of full-time watermen, some 10,000 strong, who worry that a ban would not only do them short-term harm but would wreck the packing houses and the market that Maryland has established for oysters.

And neither of those sides are necessarily enamored with the state's management of the problem: Environmentalists think the state sways toward fishing interests; the watermen, like the farmers on land, worry that bureaucracy gets in the way.

Programs are already in place to make some in-roads, such as planting and moving young oysters north, where lower salinity levels reduce the ravages of the disease MSX. Waterman paid $1 million in higher fees last year so the state could plant seed oysters in disease-free waters. Such steps are more treatment than cure, though.

The population boom in Maryland and Virginia, and the roads, homes and sewage treatment plants needed to serve that growth, dump a host of foreign ingredients into the estuary. Moreover, while consumption of seafood is up, prices for oysters are down. No one's sure why, although publicity about the oyster diseases, which don't affect people, is part of it. Even if all the oysters had lived in the lower bay last year, watermen say they wouldn't have had to work more than a day a week to meet the limited demand.

Twenty years ago, watermen brought up 3 million bushels. Last year, it was about 400,000. The harvest isn't expected to grow this year.

The shaft of sunlight in all this murky water is that scientists are learning more about the species, once taken for granted. Unfortunately, because passions on the issue run so strong, new data is often seen as compromised or molded to fit a political stance. Before they can build back the oyster, the three groups most involved in the issue are going to have to build back some trust.

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