Wet weather revives oysters Recovery: This year's soggy weather is credited with keeping down the two diseases that have devastated the state's oyster beds.

December 31, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

ST. GEORGE ISLAND — An article yesterday about oysters was accompanied by photo captions that incorrectly identified the location of a seafood company in St. Mary's County. Sea Fruit is on St. George Island.

The Sun regrets the error.

ST. GEORGE ISLAND -- Drenching rain might dampen the spirits of most landlubbers, but this year's soggy weather has buoyed Maryland watermen. The flood of fresh rainwater into Chesapeake Bay has helped more oysters survive parasitic diseases that have devastated shellfish harvests for nearly a decade now.

"We don't have no glut," said Jackie Russell, "but we've caught ** more oysters than we did for the past 15 years."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Russell runs Sea Fruit, a seafood company on the Potomac River where local watermen, such as Raymond McNeal, bring their catch for sale. St. Mary's County watermen have been tonging six or seven bushels each from the Potomac River and its tributaries this fall -- triple their daily harvest a couple years ago, Russell said.

Such recoveries have been stunted before, as drier weather revives the oyster-killing parasites Dermo and MSX. The diseases have destroyed four-fifths of the bay's historic oyster beds.

Now, though, plans to pump millions of state and federal dollars into expanding hatcheries and rebuilding shellfish reefs have given watermen hope. In the past six months, federal and state agencies have pledged to spend $10 million to $20 million on oyster restoration over the next six years -- at least four times current spending.

Hope had been in short supply despite an unprecedented agreement three years ago on a "bold, comprehensive" plan to revive the oyster. In December 1993, a group of 40 watermen, environmentalists, scientists and officials put aside their differences over whether oysters had dwindled because of disease or over harvesting. They called for restoring reefs, stocking six rivers with disease-free "seed," and putting some areas off limits to harvesting.

But the plan has yielded few results to date, acknowledge members of the group. Disease-free oysters have been planted on only a tiny fraction of the 300,000 acres that once yielded shellfish. The commercial harvest has more than doubled since the plan's adoption, but remains far below the million-bushel catch of the early 1980s.

"It's very slow going," said M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman, a Johns Hopkins University professor who leads the group, known officially as the Oyster Roundtable. "The oysters apparently do not read the Roundtable's plan."

Meeting recently to review the modest progress so far, Roundtable members decided to stick with the original blueprint. The plan's chief drawback, Wolman and others say, has been a '' lack of money, which has limited efforts to small, often uncoordinated pilot projects.

Officials have focused the past three years on planting shells and disease-free oysters in just two rivers -- the Chester and Choptank. Private citizens and community groups also have colonized the Severn River with small batches of oysters.

The actions to date are "kind of bits and pieces" of the plan, said Donald Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies.

But the effort is poised to expand dramatically.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to work with the state Department of Natural Resources on rebuilding reefs, while Gov. Parris N. Glendening has vowed to funnel state transportation funds into oyster restoration in a bid for watermen's support for dredging Baltimore Harbor.

'New era'

"This is the beginning of a new era in oyster management," said Steven Jordan, director of the joint federal-state biological laboratory in Oxford. "We're planning a large-scale restoration. The money's there, and the timing is now."

Increased spending should finance enough reef reconstruction and oyster seeding to give the restoration plan a fair chance to demonstrate significant results, proponents say.

It can't come too soon for some watermen and seafood packers. "In another three years or so, if something doesn't turn around with diseases, we're out," said Tucker Brown, a St. Mary's waterman.

While harvests have improved slightly the past couple years, the Chesapeake's oysters -- and the watermen -- are caught in a deadly squeeze. The parasites, which starve young oysters before they can grow to harvestable size, flourish in salty water.

More oysters survive when heavy rains reduce the bay's salinity, as happened this year. But the bivalves do not reproduce well in fresher water, and too fresh can be fatal.

Few young were produced this year in a rain-swollen bay that was practically fresh during much of the oyster's summer spawning season.

MSX all but disappeared

This fall, state biologists checking oyster reefs found only light to moderate infection by parasites, Jordan said. MSX, the more virulent of the two, has all but disappeared, and Dermo was detected in about 60 percent of shellfish checked, down from 80 percent or more a few years ago.

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