Oyster yield likely to rise

Rebounding stock leaves bay experts cautiously optimistic

`We're just tickled'

But lack of rain, increased salinity raise concerns

June 08, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The Chesapeake Bay's oyster stock, which plummeted to record lows five years ago, is on the rebound. Harvests have been increasing the past three oyster seasons, and officials in Virginia and Maryland are predicting an even better yield this year.

Maryland watermen had their best oyster harvest -- 400,000 bushels -- in almost a decade in the 1998-1999 season, and the season that starts in October and runs until April 2000 "is shaping up to be better," said Chris Judy, an oyster specialist in the state Department of Natural Resources.

Watermen in Virginia, where oyster stocks were decimated by disease five years ago, landed 23,108 bushels last season, said Wilford Kale, a spokesman for that state's Marine Resources Commission.

While that may seem like "a drop in the bucket compared to Maryland," he said, "we're just tickled with our small increase because we see a greater increase later."

Both states have embarked on programs to expand hatcheries and rebuild shellfish reefs to rescue the fishery. While results were mixed at first, they seem to be having some success.

The oyster catch in Maryland bottomed out at 79,618 bushels in 1993-1994 and has been slowly increasing.

The optimistic predictions for next season stem from a good reproductive season in 1997, Judy said. Oysters born then have survived well and should reach a marketable size of 3 to 3 1/2 inches when the season opens in October.

That prediction could be upset if MSX and Dermo, the parasites that ravaged the bay's oysters in the mid-1980s, recur. Conditions are ripe for that, Judy added.

The parasites, which are harmless to humans but starve young oysters before they can grow to marketable size, thrive in salty waters. The lack of rain in the past year has increased the salinity of the Chesapeake Bay.

The diseases "won't wipe out" the oysters, "but it could hurt them," Judy said.

Oysters are caught in a deadly squeeze in which conditions that are good for reproduction are at odds with conditions that allow them to survive.

They reproduce well in salty water, but survive better when heavy rains reduce the salinity of the bay and decrease the chances of the parasites. But they don't reproduce very well in fresher water, and truly fresh water could kill them.

Jerry Harris, owner of Harris Seafood on Kent Island, was cautiously optimistic about predictions of improved oyster harvests.

"Right now, we're in a good position," he said. "But you never know what's going to happen. Oyster season is four months away."

An increase in the oyster harvest would help Maryland seafood suppliers, who have been unable to compete with dealers in states where oysters are plentiful, Harris said. "Maybe we can change that. Maybe we can get some of that market back."

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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