ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's oyster dredging season opens tomorrow, but only eight skipjacks -- fewer than half last year's fleet -- are expected over the Chesapeake Bay's beds as more watermen quit, a race-winning skipper said yesterday.
Shortly after his skipjack Elsworth crossed the finish line first off Sandy Point State Park in the annual Chesapeake Appreciation Days race, Andrew McCown, 40, a Kent County waterman, said: "I don't know what the future holds, but it doesn't look good. No one seems to know what the best thing to do is."
Yesterday's rain, driven by a biting wind, all but washed out the first day of the two-day festival that normally attracts thousands of visitors but yesterday drew only about 300.
Festivities resume at 9 a.m. today at the park just off U.S. Route 50 on the western shore at the Bay Bridge. Weather forecasters said winds will continue today with rain and drizzle ending during the morning and with temperatures in the 50s.
"Tell them to put on their oilskins and come on down to see how watermen live," said Larry Simns of Rock Hall, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
Last year, 17 skipjacks opened the oyster-dredging season, but only eight are going out this year, Mr. McCown said, adding: "And most of them may not last until Christmas.
"Only as many will go as the industry can viably support. Last year, [the dredging season] only went to Christmas, and this year could be even worse," he said.
In the glory days of Chesapeake Bay oystering, hundreds of skipjacks plied the waters -- the Elsworth was built in 1901.
But their number has declined steadily to the point where fewer than 20 of the little boats are now sailing the bay.
Seventeen skipjacks entered last year's Chesapeake Appreciation Days races; only six showed up yesterday to race in weather that only the sailors said they loved.
"It was great for sailing," Mr. McCown said.
Mr. Simns said he believes oystering is over-regulated and watermen are bounced among the various agencies that are trying to save the bay.
Oysters will never disappear completely, Mr. Simns said. "We will always leave enough for them to reproduce, but if disease comes along and kills them off, there won't be enough to sustain an industry."
Regulators have created a false impression about the health of bay life, Mr. Simns maintained.
"Public perception is driven by newspapers and the biologists who feed them information. That's what's really ruining it," he said. "Nature is the great equalizer, but the biologists think they're God. The restrictions are killing us."
Eighty percent of the Chesapeake Bay -- below the Bay Bridge -- is "dead for oysters that live to maturity, and the 20 percent above the bridge is supporting 100 percent of the industry," Mr. Simns said.
Two years ago, he continued, watermen adopted a $300 surcharge on their licenses and a $1 surcharge on each bushel of oysters to be used by the state's oyster depletion fund to transfer young oysters from the southern to the northern part of the bay to give them a chance to mature.
"The state needs to step up that program if they want to have oysters. If they're not willing to spend the money, they're going to do without oysters."