TILGHMAN -- Watermen in three Eastern Shore counties have returned to work, ending a five-day strike that failed to raise the price of oysters.
After several informal meetings with buyers, the oystermen from Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester counties said they had been promised up to $20 a bushel for their catch, but yesterday some received $16, less than the $18 they had been getting before the work stoppage.
The watermen say the prices they are getting lag behind bushel rates being paid by seafood packers in the northern part of the bay.
"We decided to go back, at least for a few days, and see what happens," said Randolph Murphy, a striker from Tilghman.
With prices at $22 a bushel in Rock Hall, some watermen loaded their catches in trucks and made the two- to three-hour round trip yesterday to sell their product in the Kent County town.
Most said they would stick it out, selling to local packers and hoping prices will improve as demand increases between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Area packers say oyster prices, like those for other products, are based on quality and supply.
"The quality of oysters varies from year to year, location to location," said Charles Fisher, who owns Bivalve Oyster Packing Co. in Wicomico County.
"This year, we've been getting about 4 1/2 pints per bushel from oysters around Tilghman and 5 1/2 to 6 pints per bushel from the upper bay. They want the same price for everything, regardless of the size and quality. We're not out to ruin anybody; we have to work with these guys. But buyers see it as basic economics," he said.
The Tilghman watermen estimate that the five-day strike cost them $1,200 to $1,500 each. Many oystermen on Kent Island and those working the Little Choptank River in Dorchester County joined the strike.
In Rock Hall, where prices have remained at about $22 a bushel since the season began last month, watermen continued working.
With the outlook uncertain, Fisher said he and other buyers are waiting to see how good the oyster harvest is in Texas and other Southern states, where the season began this week.
Watermen say they will be looking for other markets, although they worry about transportation costs. They're hoping prices improve locally.
"Basically, we don't have a lot of choice," said Tilghman waterman Jeff Harrison. "We thought we had a deal for $20 a bushel, but that's not been the case. One way or the other, we have to work. If we stay on strike, it may get worse."