LEONARDTOWN – Despite increasing efforts by the state and federal government to rejuvenate the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay, preliminary numbers predict more bad news for bay waterman.
The harvest is likely to drop from 380,000 bushels last year to 300,000 when the results of the oyster season that closed Saturday are in. Disease is mostly to blame, said the Department of Natural Resources.
Dermo and MSX, two oyster-killing diseases, have spread throughout the bay’s most productive region, thwarting attempts to reverse the declining numbers, said Chris Judy, department spokesman.
“In the breadbasket of oyster production . . . you have the oysters being taken out by disease,” Judy said.
Since the mid-1980s, the oyster population has only been a fraction of what it was at the beginning of the century. During the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, oysters were so abundant that in the bay, pirates and locals used to fight over the lucrative shellfish, then known as Chesapeake Gold. The bay used to yield more than 14 million bushels of the shellfish.
Now, watermen like Ricky Morris, who used to just go out to his pier in St. Mary’s County to harvest the oysters, has to travel almost 100 miles just to find a good bed of oysters.
“Watermen nowadays have to be really (fiscally) modest,” Morris said. “It takes a family to hold down the business.”
Earlier in the century, over-harvesting was to blame for the shrinking population, but the harvest leveled at about 2 million bushels. However, the drastic blow to the industry came in 1988, when disease exploded. In 1985, the bay yielded 1.5 million bushels, but by 1988, the number had dropped to 363,000.
“In three years it went from historical levels to historical lows,” Judy said.
To reverse the trend and to stave off the extinction of one of the bay’s oldest industries, the state has tried several methods to catch spat – baby oysters – and make sure they reach maturity.
Adult oysters release spat, which float in the water until they catch onto a rough surface, typically an old oyster shell, where they will grow into oysters.
In an effort to catch more spat, many agencies in Maryland, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers, are spreading exhausted oyster beds with fresh, clean oyster shells.
The success of these efforts has been minimal because, even when the spat do set, disease often ravages the fledgling colony.
Another tactic that has been used is seeding traditional oyster beds with oysters grown in laboratories in hope that they will spawn and spread the population.
These efforts have been largely successful in reviving isolated oyster beds, but they have yet to start the chain reaction of oyster growth throughout the bay, which the department says is critical in bringing oyster populations back up to where it was in the mid 1980s.
“As we do these 20-acre or 10-acre projects . . . the real measure of success is can we see the bay come back,” Judy said.
The revival also is critical in continuing a way of life on the bay. Morris’ family has been catching oysters for over 200 years, but decreasing profits and diminishing populations have him hoping his son finds another line of work.
“If I had bills, there’s no way I could stay in it,” Morris said.
Low spat sets this year suggest the situation might not improve in the near future.
“This year, areas that have a potential for good spat set have not gotten a good spat set,” said Roy Scott, manager of Maryland’s Oyster Repletion Project.
The future is largely controlled by the rate of disease, which is spreading farther up the bay and its tributaries.
“We’re finding it in places where we haven’t seen it for the last 10 years,” said Chris Dungan, Department of Natural Resources oyster research scientist.
Finding the answers to these diseases will be critical to reviving the oyster population, said state officials. However, scientists have yet to come up with a solution. “Disease is a phenomenal force,” Judy said. “If we conduct restoration projects in the midst of a disease outbreak we will have the same results.” -30- CNS-3-30-01