Bay oyster: a rare delicacy, indeed Worst dredging season in history is caused by two parasitic diseases

April 01, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

The caption for an oystering photo on Page 1A of The Sun yesterday said that the photo was taken Wednesday. It was taken Monday.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The worst oyster season in Maryland history ended with a whimper yesterday.

Many workboats remained at their docks, and scientists wondered if the fabled Chesapeake Bay shellfish can ever recover from the effects of disease, over-harvesting and pollution.

"I can't really see us having a public fishery to speak about," said Dr. Roger I. E. Newell, an oyster researcher at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratory near Cambridge.


From Tolchester to Tangier Sound, so few watermen bothered to dredge or tong for oysters yesterday that it was hard to tell there even was a season.

Final figures won't be in for several weeks, but fishery officials predict a record-low harvest of 120,000 bushels.

That's less than half of last season's catch, 7 percent of the total seven years ago, and less than 1 percent of the state's peak harvest -- 15 million bushels in the 1884-1885 season.

The season began Oct. 1 with about 200 workboats on the bay. But for the last few months, only a handful of watermen have bothered to scour the Chesapeake for what they once dubbed "winter's gold."

Wherever fishermen scraped the bottom with their scissors-like tongs or big iron dredges, they came up with "boxes" -- the gaping empty shells of dead oysters.

"We thought we were going to have a big year down around Tilghman Island, but when we went out there they'd all died," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

The massacre was no big surprise, and the culprits no mystery. For the past five years, a pair of parasitic diseases have plagued oyster population and decimated the harvest.

Yet the six-month season just ended was the bleakest ever, by far, because the diseases, Dermo and MSX, have spread farther than ever and infested virtually all oyster reefs throughout the bay.

"The diseases are cropping the oysters before watermen get a chance to crop them," said W. P. "Pete" Jensen, Maryland fisheries director.

In the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake, the picture is even grimmer. MSX and Dermo have "pretty much destroyed our industry," said Dr. Eugene M. Burreson, an oyster-disease researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The winter's snow and heavy rains could bring some relief. Fresh water makes the bay less salty, which seems to knock back the diseases.

Parasites here to stay

But wetter weather will provide only a temporary respite, scientists say. The parasites, which first appeared in the bay more than 30 years ago, are here to stay.

"Given as much [research] money as we wanted for [the next] 100 years, I can't see a way of getting those oysters to survive," said Dr. Newell of the University of Maryland. "Honestly, I wouldn't put my money into it."

Chesapeake Bay once meant oysters. The "immense protein factory," as H. L. Mencken called it, supplied shellfish to the nation and helped launch the industrialization of Baltimore more than a century ago.

Oyster canneries crowded Fells Point and Canton, and railroads shipped barrels of oysters north and west to feed a public that craved the mushy-bodied mollusks.

No more. Discouraged by meager harvests year after year, more and more watermen have hung up their tongs. Seafood dealers in the heart of "bay country" often must buy shellfish from the Gulf and Pacific coasts to stock restaurants, raw bars and supermarkets here.

Yet the virtual collapse of Maryland's $20 million oyster fishery could mean more than the twilight of the waterman's romanticized way of life. It could also undermine the decade-long, $250 million-a-year struggle to restore the

Chesapeake itself.

Some scientists believe that the bay needs a healthy population of oysters to clean up its polluted waters, because the shellfish are more than just hors d'oeuvres. Oysters feed on the algae that cloud the bay, and each bivalve filters up to 50 gallons of water a day.

Oysters once were so abundant they could "purify" the entire Chesapeake within five days, said Dr. Newell. And the reefs they created rose so far off the bottom that ships had to steer clear.

Today's oyster population would need about a year to filter the bay's water, said Dr. Newell, and no vessel has run aground on an oyster bar for years. State officials contend that Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay still contains 2.5 billion oysters -- just as many as during the fishery's heyday a century ago.

The big difference, said Mr. Jensen, is that nearly all the oysters today are young and small, and diseases kill them before they grow to marketable size.

But many scientists contend that oysters were in trouble long before MSX and Dermo hit. Harvests have been declining since their peak in the 1880s, and more than half the bay's oyster bars have disappeared -- chewed up by fishing gear or smothered by silt from shoreline erosion, farming and development.

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