Oyster harvest plummets

March 31, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

The Chesapeake Bay's disease-battered oyster industry continues its downward slide, with record-low harvests this season in Maryland and Virginia.

Landings of oysters reported in Maryland for the season that ends today are expected to be only 70,000 bushels, down 40 percent from the previous year's record poor catch, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

In Virginia, meanwhile, the harvest of market-size oysters from publicly owned river bottom has fallen to about 6,000 bushels, from 40,000 the year before, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

In the Potomac River, where a freshet caused by heavy spring rains and snow melt last spring killed off many remaining oysters, the total catch for this season has been only 250 bushels, down from 75,000 bushels the previous season.

Maryland's plummeting catch reflects continuing mortality from Dermo and MSX, two parasites that have wiped out oyster beds in 80 percent of the Maryland portion of the bay since the late 1980s, said Peter Jensen, DNR fisheries director.

Though fatal to oysters, the parasites are not harmful to people who eat infected shellfish.

Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, attributed the declining harvest to economics, harsh winter weather and government regulation.

He contended that the situation was not as bleak as official harvest figures indicate.

"We're not trying to suggest that there's not anything wrong with oysters," Mr. Simns added.

"There's a downward trend, but the actual numbers really don't mean that much."

The watermen who did go after oysters caught as many or more than last year, he said, but the overall harvest probably dropped because more watermen shunned oystering in favor of crabs and rockfish.

The number of watermen who paid the $300 permit fee dropped from more than 1,000 last season to about 550 this year, he said, in large part because of declining earnings.

Mr. Simns blamed competition from out-of-state oysters for depressing prices here by as much as $5 per bushel from last year's $20 average.

The season also was shortened by two weeks because the state delayed the start until Oct. 15. And, watermen couldn't work when the bay froze over during an extreme winter cold spell. Mr. Simms also argued that Maryland's oyster harvest wasn't as sparse as official figures indicate because much of the catch -- perhaps most of it -- wasn't reported to the state.

He said his group surveyed 1,600 licensed oystermen and the results suggest that last year's actual harvest was three times the official figure -- as large as 500,000 bushels.

Many watermen, he said, are selling their catches directly to restaurants and other customers, avoiding seafood dealers who zTC must report how many oysters they buy and pay the state a $1 per bushel tax.

"The scarcer the oysters, the bigger the number that goes unreported," Mr. Simns said.

Mr. Jensen said he agrees that there is significant under-reporting, but he doubted that it was as great as the watermen suggest.

The winter's cold weather and heavy rains may improve next year's harvest because the parasites killing oysters tend to retreat when the bay's salinity declines. But officials in Virginia and along the Potomac caution that the diseases have proved stubborn in the past.

Prolonged wet, cold weather is needed, and a good reproduction before there is much prospect of a significant recovery in oyster harvests, officials said.

William Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said this year's meager harvests demonstrate again that watermen and regulators need to abandon "status quo" and try new ideas for restoring the bay's oysters.

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