ANNAPOLIS – This year’s oyster season is expected to be the second lowest in Maryland history, Department of Natural Resources officials said Friday.
Disease and dry weather are contributing to an expected harvest of little more than 120,000 bushels when the season ends March 29, officials told Eastern Shore lawmakers.
That’s down from 348,000 bushels last season. The lowest oyster harvest of about 80,000 bushels was in 1994.
“The three-year consecutive drought plus the warm weather have created the conditions necessary for the disease to expand,” said Chris Judy, director of the department’s shellfish division, in an interview.
Next year’s oyster season could be even worse, Judy said.
The unusual weather conditions led to an increased presence of two parasitic diseases in oysters. As the infected oyster population increases, mortality continues to grow, he said.
The mortality of oysters in the Eastern Bay, for instance, was 60 percent in 2001, up from 16 percent in 1999.
Although the state experienced a similar outbreak of oyster disease in the early 1990s, this time the prevalence of disease is broader, Judy said.
In 1999, Maryland’s oyster harvest recovered from its lowest point to hit nearly 424,000 bushels after long periods of intense rain.
“It’s all about survival,” Judy said. “As the survival of the oysters went up, the harvest went up.”
It will take three or four years of the same wet weather conditions to significantly reverse the declining oyster population, Judy said.
In the meantime, the department has continued with its oyster restoration program, which takes old oyster shells and plants them in areas where reproduction is most intense so oyster young have a safe place to attach and grow.
Still, the program can only do so much until the prevalence of disease declines, Judy said.
To counter the declining oyster population, the General Assembly has ordered the Department of Natural Resources to study the feasibility of cultivating a non-native species of oyster. The plan still needs approval from the governor.