Maryland watermen held their own during the six-month oyster season that ended yesterday, but future harvests appear threatened by a die-off of young shellfish in the lower Chesapeake Bay and limited state spending on bed preparation.
The final tally will take several weeks, but Department of Natural Resources officials predict it will show that the state's 963 licensed watermen caught about 170,000 bushels of oysters since the season began Oct. 1.
If so, the take would be slightly more than the 1994-1995 catch of 164,538 bushels. That, in turn, was more than double the previous year's catch.
"It's been a good year for consumers," said F. William Sieling III, director of seafood marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. He noted that local markets have been "flooded" with oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound, helping to hold dockside prices to $12 per bushel, down from last year's $15 to $20 per bushel.
Last year's Maryland catch, though still only a fraction of the million-bushel harvests of the 1970s and early 1980s, was the first sign of recovery for the bay's oysters after a seven-year bout with two parasitic diseases.
The diseases, MSX and Dermo, do not harm people who eat infected oysters, but they kill young shellfish before they reach the legal harvest size.
The two parasites thrive and spread when hot, dry summers reduce freshwater flows into the bay. First detected in the Chesapeake in the 1950s and 1960s, the diseases devastated oysters during a prolonged dry spell that began in the late 1980s.
Heavy spring rains and snowmelt in 1993 and 1994 almost flushed the parasites out of the bay with record-high river flows. But during last summer's drought, the diseases returned with a vengeance as the bay's salinity climbed to levels rarely seen in the past 50 years.
About three-fourths of all the oysters died in Tangier Sound, where MSX was most intense.
The diseases seem to have abated somewhat after rains and snowmelt during the winter flooded the bay with fresh water. But the microorganisms already had taken their toll in many of the shellfish beds in Tangier Sound, from which the state transplants young "seed" oysters for growing to harvestable size in the rest of the bay.
As much as 80 percent of the seed oysters in the sound were found to have MSX, which can kill them within months, said Stephen J. Jordan, director of a joint state-federal biological laboratory at Oxford.
"That's probably going to reduce the amount of seed [oysters] we plant," said W. Peter Jensen, a DNR fisheries official.
Some seed oysters, if moved to a less saline part of the bay, might be able to recover. On the other hand, state officials have agreed not to plant diseased seed oysters in the upper reaches of bay rivers where they are trying to cultivate uninfected oysters.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the oyster diseases did not trouble him as much as the lack of state money for "planting" shells to which young oysters can attach.
Oyster larvae swim freely when they hatch in summer, but settle to the bottom after a few weeks, where they need to attach to a hard surface to grow. For decades, the state has "planted" shells on the bay bottom to encourage oyster growth.
This year, the state budgeted $400,000 for dredging up old shells from the bay bottom and transplanting them, less than one-third the yearly expenditure in the late 1980s.
C. J. Langenfelder & Son Inc., a Kent Island company that has held the state shell-dredging contract since 1986, is threatening to pull out, saying that it cannot continue with the reduced revenue from the state.
"When you've had a natural disaster," said Mr. Simns, "it won't come back on its own."
"If we don't have shells, then we won't have seed [oysters]," he added. "And then the oyster business is going to be completely gone."
Dorothy L. Leonard, DNR's new fisheries director, said Glendening administration officials are trying to come up with more money for oyster repletion. She said she is investigating alternatives to Langenfelder. If it withdraws, the state might buy clam and oyster shells from seafood processing plants throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
The state also is considering buying oyster larvae from an out-of-state private hatchery to supplement the diminished stocks in the lower bay, she said.
"I truly believe we're not cornered on this one, and watermen will have a program" for oyster repletion, she said.
"I think we need to rebuild the oyster fishery," she said. "The whole bay ecosystem is based on oysters. Unless we rebuild them, we're not going to be able to rebuild other fisheries."
Pub Date: 3/31/96