KENT NARROWS - It's been years since Ronnie Benton has seen oysters like these: plump clusters of fat shells covered in mud and mussels, plucked right from local waters.
"They were beautiful, beautiful," said Benton, a Centreville oysterman and diver who spent much of yesterday morning about 20 feet underwater as he combed Blunts Bar for his boat's 30-bushel catch. "It's just beautiful down there."
Yesterday marked the first opening of Maryland's managed reserves system, a unique partnership among watermen, scientists and regulators to grow oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. In recent years, oystermen have all but lost their livelihood to diseases and over-harvesting. Under the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership's managed reserves system, scientists plant disease-free oysters on select bars throughout the bay; in exchange, watermen agree not to harvest the bars for several years so the bay can reap the ecological benefits.
A small portion of three reserves opened from dawn to noon yesterday to those few dozen watermen who still hold oyster licenses. The event brought together environmentalists, seafood processors, watermen and scientists - groups that are not always on the same page when it comes to oyster management.
For the watermen, the catch was a mixed bag. On Blunts Bar, which sits on nearly 200 acres, deep in the Chester River, divers like Benton cleaned up. He and his Eastern Shore crew netted 30 bushels for a morning's work - not bad when each bushel sells for about $30. All told, watermen harvested about 100 bushels from Blunts Bar.
But unlike the divers, oystermen who used the traditional tonging method on the two other bars, Emory Hollow in the Chester River and Bolingbroke Sands in the Choptank River, came up short. The tongers pulled up lots of plump, healthy oysters. But partnership rules mandated that watermen could only keep oysters larger than 4 inches, which is 1 inch larger than normal size, so that the bay could benefit longer from the bivalve's filter-feeding capabilities. Consequently, many watermen grudgingly threw back perfect 3-inchers.
"It's not as good as we thought we was going to do," said Charles Crouch, a 52-year-old oysterman from Rock Hall whose 25-seat dead rise had only two full bushels in it by late morning yesterday. "There are a lot of oysters here, but they're just not 4 inches."
As Crouch tonged, he and culler Denny Bryden reminisced about high school days when they could catch 50 bushels in an afternoon. Now, they lament, they'll just about break even when factoring in the price of fuel.
Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said the partnership will look into changing the 4-inch limit when the reserves open again next month. He said that after the next opening the partnership will have a more complete picture of the project.
"I don't expect these oystermen will think it's a success if they look at today, but if they look at it in the long run, then I believe they will think so," Simns said. "The oysters were not dying. They were growing well."
In the last 22 years, the value of Maryland's oyster harvest has fallen from $22 million to $600,000 annually because of rampant diseases, bay pollution and over-harvesting. The native oyster's health has deteriorated so much that the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is considering putting an Asian oyster in the bay in hopes that a non-native species would provide the bay a natural filter and watermen a crop to harvest.
Many scientists say that the state is moving too quickly to introduce a non-native species, and they worry that such an introduction could bring in new diseases or beat out the struggling natives for food and habitat.
But Karen Oertel, whose family owns Harris Crab House and W.H. Harris Seafood Inc. on Kent Island, says the Asian oyster is the seafood industry's best hope for bringing back its livelihood. The bay needs an oyster that can live in high salinity, where the native oyster grows well but eventually succumbs to diseases. Oertel, who called yesterday's success "the pinprick on the map," said such events will never do the restoration job quickly enough.
"I don't have another 40 years to give it. I don't even have another year to give it," Oertel said.
About 11 a.m., Benton and crewmates Jim Lowery and Brett and Tad Ringgold pulled up to Oertel's dock and unloaded their catch. The mud-encrusted bivalves then entered one of the last packing houses in Maryland, where they were cleaned, shucked and sent off to area restaurants. Among the takers: the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington and Nick's Seafood in Baltimore.
Across the narrows from Oertel's crab house, Adrien Hansen, a driver for Bevins Oyster Co. in Kinsale, Va., had his truck loaded with 51 bushels. He sold one to a crabbing group from Hagerstown; the rest are headed to restaurants in the Old Dominion, where Hansen expects they'll be welcomed by a crowd that has been getting most of its oysters from Louisiana of late.
"I wouldn't eat a Southern oyster," he said. "I want to know that oyster came out of the bay today."
Even Brett Ringgold couldn't resist tasting the best native oysters he'd seen in years. He opened up an oyster and slurped it down.
"It's really salty, but it ain't bad. It's pretty fat," he said.
Though the full-time oystermen on deck couldn't complain about the catch, the group wasn't wild for the managed reserves system.
"We always like it when we can get them anytime we want, the way it used to be," Benton said. "But we'll take what we can get, just like anybody else."