Record-low Chesapeake oyster harvest expected

Drought, disease to cut sharply into year's catch

November 20, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's oyster catch this season could be less than half of last year's record low, state officials said yesterday, blaming years of disease that have ravaged the Chesapeake Bay's bivalve population.

Last year's catch of just 53,000 bushels was a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million bushels that were landed as recently as the early 1980s. But the news this year is worse.

"Based on the boat count, based on talking to the industry, how many bushels per day are being caught, our estimate is in the neighborhood of 20,000 to 25,000 bushels, at most," Chris Judy, chief of oyster programs at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said yesterday.

"It's easily the worst oyster season we've ever had."

Watermen in Maryland and Virginia confirm the state's estimate, saying they're struggling and frequently travel 20 or 30 miles a day to find areas with enough living, market-size oysters.

"At the end of the day, when you can't provide a paycheck for your family, you really feel bad," said Dorchester County waterman Roy Meredith, president of the Chesapeake, Atlantic & Coastal Bays Watermen's Coalition. "It's killing my people."

The results from this season - which began Oct. 1 and ends March 31 - are renewing calls by watermen who want scientists to move as quickly as possible to test the feasibility and safety of placing a non-native Asian oyster into the Chesapeake Bay as an alternative to the native species.

Watermen hope the Asian variety, which appears to be resistant to the two diseases that have ravaged bay oysters, could one day revitalize the local industry.

"Given how bad things have gotten, most people think the possibility of the Asian oyster is the only game left in town," said George M. O'Donnell, a retired waterman and former Queen Anne's County commissioner.

Across the bay, the signs of the declining oyster harvest are easy to spot - particularly in the steep decline in the number watermen trying to make a living at their trade.

Maryland's recently completed fall survey of the bay and its tributaries counted fewer than 50 boats, representing 50 to 70 watermen, Judy said. In contrast, 437 watermen reported harvesting oysters last year, and 2,500 participated in the 1999-2000 winter season.

"You just can't make very much out there right now," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "The oysters are so susceptible to disease, so all they're finding is shell in most places."

Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison IV, whose family owns a Tilghman Island restaurant and seafood processing house, said he sees the decline, too. As in past years, "all of the major shucking houses are shucking all Texas oysters now," he said.

"After Christmas, I would venture there will be no one oystering on the Chesapeake Bay this year, because there won't be anything left," Harrison said.

Maryland's oyster survey - which involves dredging at dozens of sites across the bay and many tributaries - did find a few encouraging signs, Judy said.

This year's heavy rainfall and near-record flow of fresh water into the bay appear to have curbed disease in many areas. The two diseases that have devastated the native oyster population, Dermo and MSX, tend to thrive in saltier water. The bay's salinity was lower this year, virtually extinguishing MSX and "significantly reducing" Dermo in some spots, Judy said.

"At numerous locations, we're seeing small oysters - ones less than market size - surviving very well," Judy said. "And they're on their way to becoming market oysters in two years, if diseases don't return to their previous high levels."

But the reduction in disease hasn't helped this year's harvest, Judy said. That's because the four-year drought that kept the bay's salinity higher than normal seriously damaged the population that would have reached market size this season.

"Because the damage has been done, you're not seeing any turnaround for the industry right now because of this wet year. The die was cast over the last four years," Judy said.

"I really think we need another high rainfall year to see a change in the oysters," Judy said. "One wet year is not enough to change the momentum."

The downside of this year's low salinity might be lower reproduction because oysters tend to be more productive in spawning at higher salinity.

The state survey found many areas with virtually zero spat - the term for tiny oysters - set on shell. But other areas had modest or light spat sets, which Judy described as "a pleasant surprise, because with all of the rainfall and the low salinity, we expected to see zero spat virtually everywhere."

The bleak outlook for the native oyster - Crassostrea virginica - has many in the industry looking ahead to what they hope will be successful experiments with the Asian Crassostrea ariakensis.

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