SOLOMONS -- As the wind whips at his back, Capt. Harry Huseman steers the Karen Bee to a spot in the Patuxent River just beyond the highway bridge connecting this Southern Maryland island to St. Mary's County. He uses a machine to lower rusty tongs into the murky water below. Within seconds, a pulley hoists up a whole lot of shells and muck - and within it, a batch of market-sized oysters.
The 81-year-old oysterman says he's having a good year, and he's not the only one.
So far, Maryland's oyster harvest is at 100,000 bushels - already the best season in the past five years, and it's not over until March 31.
Those numbers are nowhere near historic levels, which were measured in millions. In recent years, disease, over-harvesting and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have drastically reduced what was once a huge state industry. But this year's uptick is giving the few dozen watermen who ply the waters in the coldest months a little boost.
"We've been fortunate this year," Huseman said of the catch. "We didn't have many dead ones. They all seemed like they have survived the last couple of years."
Scientists and watermen credit the wet springs of 2003 and 2004 for the recent bounty. The precipitation lowered the bay's salinity and kept the diseases MSX and Dermo from infecting large numbers of oysters. Many of the small oysters that watermen had noticed the past two years finally reached the market size of 3 inches this season.
"It's good news," said Chris Judy, shellfish restoration program director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But he added, "It needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I wouldn't characterize it as a recovery."
Judy gives some of the credit for the good harvest to a state program that plants shells, which young oysters use as habitat, in the higher salinity areas of the bay, where much of the reproduction occurs.
Many areas where the program put shells saw better-than-usual harvests, including the upper and eastern bays and the Patuxent. This year, DNR has spent $2.2 million on the program - almost as much as the estimated dockside value of the season's catch.
The program, which has been in place since 1960, is just one tool scientists and managers are using to bring back the state's once-bountiful bivalve. The Ehrlich administration is considering introducing a foreign oyster, both to help watermen and to filter the increasingly polluted water, though a decision isn't expected until later this year.
In the meantime, University of Maryland scientists are developing and planting disease-free native oysters where conditions are ripe for growth.
Biologist Kennedy Paynter, who has been monitoring the oysters' health, said the harvest could be a sign that the management techniques are working. But, he cautioned, the numbers likely have more to do with the popularity of power dredging - a technique, permitted in about 30 percent of the bay, in which a motorized dredge skirts the bottom. Power dredging generally yields far more oysters than traditional methods.
The Ehrlich administration had proposed increasing power dredging to about 40 percent of the bay, but dropped the idea after environmentalists and scientists said it would further endanger a scarce resource.
"Power dredging has had a huge impact on the harvest," Paynter said. He said using the number of bushels caught "as a measure of the health of the oyster population is not valid because the technique has changed."
Power dredging isn't allowed in the Patuxent, where oystermen work the river's wide bottom using either old-fashioned hand tongs or more modern hydraulic ones. Many residents here believe that the power-dredgers, having tapped out other parts of the bay, have switched techniques and come to the Patuxent to use tongs.
As many as 40 boats a day have been plying the waters around tiny Solomons.
The result is an unexpected boon that seems to benefit many businesses on the island, which was once home to a brisk shucking business but now is better known for its tranquil views and fishing-boat tours.
In past years, Bunky's Charter Boats along the main island road has sold plenty of oysters from Louisiana. But because of Hurricane Katrina, few businesses here have gulf oysters this year. Bunky's two shuckers have been busy with a crop caught right outside its doors.
"Everyone's been coming back just raving about how good they've been," said Elisa VanDevander, whose family owns Bunky's.
Most days, David Fauntleroy, a driver for the Virginia-based Bevans Oyster Co., is driving back across the Potomac with between 100 and 150 bushels from Solomons.
If he makes a few other stops on the Eastern Shore, he says, he can get 250 bushels - considered a "real good day" in any season, he said.