Oysters make slippery fare for St. Mary's festival of eating and shucking

October 19, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

LEONARDTOWN -- Shells were flying faster than the crowd could cheer as Deborah Pratt deftly shucked two dozen oysters in little more than two minutes yesterday to become champion of the annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival.

From the packed grandstands, Richard Schubach and his nine-year-old son, Brendan Davis, watched as Ms. Pratt, 39, of Jamaica, Va., beat a challenger from Texas to retain the national title she won last year.

"Next year, I think they ought to have an oyster-eating championship," said Mr. Schubach, of Burtonsville. He said he can easily eat 100 raw oysters at a single sitting.

But Brendan and his friend, Brett Harris, 11, of Baltimore, looked dubious at the suggestion. "They taste like guts," said Brett, who sampled one raw oyster before turning to the fried variety.

Over two days, thousands of oyster lovers from as far away as Texas feasted on every known recipe of the delicacy for which the Chesapeake Bay has long been famous.

For many St. Mary's County watermen, it was a chance to escape their worries over the badly battered oyster industry.

Oysters were the mainstay of the bay's seafood industry a century ago. Old-timers boast of days when oysters were so plentiful that the piles of shells around Annapolis' City Dock were tall enough for children to slide down them. But Maryland's famous blue crabs have replaced oysters as the most plentiful shellfish in recent years.

Disease and over-harvesting have seriously depleted oyster crops. Environmentalists have warned that Maryland's oyster industry, which plunged from 1.5 million bushels in 1986 to 321,700 last year, is near collapse.

But the men who comb the bay for oysters were hopeful yesterday of a comeback. "I'm very optimistic -- well, at least a little optimistic -- that things will come back the way they were," said Robert Lumpkins, 38, of Piney Point.

Mr. Lumpkins, who grew up crabbing and fishing for rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay, said he has survived other oyster "droughts" and hopes to weather this one.

The oyster-shucking contest was the highlight of the festival, which was begun 26 years ago by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park.

"I'm ready," said Ms. Pratt, who shucks oysters part-time at a cannery, before facing off with Scott Stiles, a 20-year-old bartender from San Antonio, Texas.

Mr. Stiles was leading the contest until his hand slipped. He dropped an oyster, permitting Ms. Pratt to beat him by a mere one second. Her prize: A trip to Galway, Ireland, next September, to represent the U.S. in an international oyster-opening competition.

Oyster-shucking is a part of Chesapeake Bay lore that some fear is becoming endangered along with the fragile shellfish.

The oysters, already languishing in waters that became increasingly laden with silt as the surrounding land was developed, were devastated by the invasion of two parasites, MSX and Dermo, some 30 years ago.

Although the MSX parasite has largely vanished from Maryland waters after destroying more than 75 percent of the oysters it infected, Dermo continues to spread. The stubborn disease has wiped out as much as 50 percent of oysters in some areas.

New research by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has shown that oysters are more likely to be attacked by the parasites in polluted waters, said Rodney Coggin, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We now have strong scientific evidence linking water quality to the devastating diseases that have been responsible for the precipitous declines in oysters in the bay," he said. The study is detailed in this month's newsletter to members of the Annapolis-based environmental advocacy group.

Meanwhile, a new study by the state Department of Natural Resources casts doubt on the long-held belief in a golden age of oyster abundance.

In reanalyzing records of old oyster harvests, William P. Jensen, DNR's longtime fisheries director, has found the long-term decline was much less dramatic than previously believed.

He also argues that the loss of oyster reefs stems largely from the parasitic diseases, not from over-harvesting.

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