Oyster yield surges after record low Outlook uncertain for Md. blue crabs

April 02, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Buoyed by a remission in the diseases that have ravaged Chesapeake Bay oysters, Maryland watermen enjoyed their biggest harvest in three years during the 5 1/2 -month season that ended last week.

Though the oyster harvest tally won't be complete for several weeks, watermen so far have reported catching nearly 132,000 bushels -- more than a 60 percent increase over the record-low catch of the year before, says the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"These were the best oysters in five or six years," said Tony Rippons Jr., a resident of Dorchester County who owns Tony's Seafood on U.S. 40 in Catonsville. "They are tasty and fat."

But the good news on the oyster harvest is tempered by a continuing debate over whether the blue crab, the bay's most popular and valuable species, is in danger of collapse.

Crabbing season began yesterday, and a survey has shown that the bay's wintertime crab population fell more than 60 percent during the past six years. But some people connected with the industry question the survey's reliability.

This month, biologists from throughout the mid-Atlantic plan to assemble for a "summit" on the state of the blue crab. They will discuss the latest research and seek a scientific consensus on the status of the Chesapeake's crab stocks, said Anne Lange, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

State fisheries director W. P. "Pete" Jensen predicted that when all the oyster catch is reported the tally could reach 150,000 bushels, nearly double the 79,600 bushels landed in the 1993-1994 season.

"That's still [less than] 10 percent of what it was 15 years ago," Mr. Jensen said of the period when annual harvests of more than 2 million bushels were common. "But at least the sharp trend downward has been reversed."

Already damaged by a century of overfishing and pollution, bay oysters have been devastated by MSX and Dermo since the late 1980s. The two parasitic diseases, though not harmful to humans, kill off young oysters before they can grow to harvest size of 3 inches across.

Dermo and MSX spread throughout the bay as hot, dry summers created favorable conditions. Until recently, biologists were finding Dermo, the more persistent of the two parasites, in 85 percent of the oysters they sampled.

But heavy spring rains the past two years sent a torrent of fresh water into the bay, helping to flush the parasites from oysters.

In the oystering season just ended, watermen harvested them from areas of the bay that have not yielded shellfish for five or six years. Lower bay oystermen had to spend the past several winters away from home working in the few relatively disease-free areas of the upper bay.

But scientists caution that the diseases could return if rainfall is below normal.

"It's encouraging we're coming up at all and providing a little respite for watermen," said William J. Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "But we have to keep it in perspective."

Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, agreed. "If it's hot and dry, they're liable to die again," he said.

But so far, customers are very happy with the oysters harvested, said Paul Devins, owner of the Crab Pot in Lexington Market. "They're still not cheap, $5.50 a half-dozen for my customers, but plenty of people are eating them."

As for crabbing, Mr. Simns predicted that the harvest this year will be no better than last year's, when the catch was 20 percent below the 10-year average.

Maryland's crab harvest, which has averaged 47 million pounds for the past decade, fell to 26 million pounds in 1992, then rebounded to a record 57 million pounds in 1993, only to decline again last year to 36 million pounds.

Concern about crabs has prompted Maryland natural resources officials to form a "steering committee" of seafood processors, watermen, scientists and environmentalists.

A survey conducted the past six years by Maryland and Virginia scientists indicates the bay's winter time crab population has declined more than 60 percent.

But Mr. Simns and Mr. Jensen said there was no cause for alarm because the survey is too new, with only six years of data, to be considered reliable and because this year's sampling is not complete.

Early sampling done last winter in Virginia waters found 40 percent to 50 percent fewer crabs on the bay bottom than the previous year. But Mr. Jensen said last week that no such drop-off has been seen in the upper bay sampling by DNR biologists.

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