DEAL ISLAND — The struggles of the Maryland oyster have long been on the minds of people across the state. In the late 1800s, Maryland had the largest oyster fishery in the world, but overharvesting, disease, and habitat loss sent the oyster populations on a downward spiral, according to a recent study.
“The largest single decrease was probably in the 1980s when we saw the oyster harvest go from a few million bushels a year down to a few hundred thousand bushels a year, and we’ve stayed at a relatively similar harvest level since that time,” said Michael Naylor, the shellfish program director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Naylor said there are several benefits to having oysters in the Bay including filtering the water, pollution removal and taking up nitrogen and phosphorus.
However, the low numbers are making it difficult for them to do their job.
“The Bay’s oysters were once the Bay’s filter. They aren’t any longer,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them to effectively filter the water.”
Naylor said disease resistance will be necessary for the full recovery.
“Disease resistance will develop in the population, it’s just a question of how long it will take,” he said. “I always say to people that full recovery may not take place in my lifetime, but I sure hope it does in my children’s lifetime.”
State government and local groups are making efforts to restore the population.
In 2009, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan proposed regulations that increased state’s oyster sanctuaries to 24 percent of the remaining habitat. The governor’s Oyster Recovery Plan was implemented in 2010.
“Nobody is allowed to harvest any oysters on these grounds, and it includes entire river systems,” Naylor said.
Watermen harvesting the oysters are not fond of the sanctuaries.
“That was a big thorn in our side,” said Daniel Webster, a waterman in Deal Island.
Webster has been on the water since 1977. He said legal oysters are scarce this time of year.
“It’s the unknown,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to make a dollar.”
Some suggest even more stringent restrictions. A study released last summer led by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science suggested a complete moratorium on the harvest.
“The population is extremely depleted, even compared to many other species that are considered to be at low abundance relative to what they used to be at,” said Michael Wilberg, the lead researcher on the study.
The study found oyster populations have declined 99.7 percent since the early 1800s and have dropped 92 percent since 1980.
Wilberg said they suggested that the moratorium be imposed until the oyster population was at a high enough level to “support sustainable harvest.”
However, O’Malley announced earlier this year that Maryland’s 2011 Fall Oyster Survey showed the highest level of oyster survival since 1985, according to a statement from the Department of Natural Resources.
In addition, the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory found that MSX and Dermo, the two diseases that have been detrimental to the Maryland oysters, are at their lowest recorded levels, the statement said.
Though the harvest data for this past season will not be ready until later this Spring, the data from the early months in the season, which runs from October 1 through the end of March, suggest the harvest will show a significant increase from the previous year, Naylor said in an email.
“Oysters are doing a lot better than they were doing certainly in the 1980s.” Naylor said. “We had a harvest that was below 50,000 bushels a year and our harvest has gone up way above that now.”
Other programs across the state are contributing to restoring the oyster population.
Marylanders Grow Oysters, managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, gives people in the community the opportunity to contribute to restoration efforts.
People across the state nurse baby oysters, or spat, from the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge for the first year of their life.
The oysters are kept in protected conditions away from predators to prepare them for release to a sanctuary.
The program began in 2008 in the Tred Avon River. It has now expanded to 24 tributaries across the state and there are about 8,000 cages between these sites.
In June, growers in the Severn River will transport the nursed oysters to a sanctuary on the river.
“Oysters are part of the culture, and we need that part of it,” said Bob Whitcomb, one of the coordinators on the Severn River. “But they’re also part of the environment, and we need them to be our filters to keep the Bay clean.”
The Oyster Recovery Partnership also has programs on land. Their Shell Recycling Alliance collects oysters from more than 100 restaurants and businesses. Baby oysters, or spat, are later placed on the shells at Horn Point Laboratory.
“For every half shell at a restaurant, we average about 10 baby oysters that get back on the shell at the lab,” said Bryan Kent Gomes, the manager of the project.
The shells give the baby oysters a place to hopefully grow into adult oysters.
These oysters are later dropped onto a harvestable reef or sanctuary, Gomes said.
The program helps deal with the issue of stormwater runoff into the Bay, which makes reproduction in the wild difficult for the oyster, he said.
“We’re kind of stepping in as a surrogate with these shells and kind of helping mother nature out to really increase and get as many oysters back to the Bay as possible.”
The program has contributed to restoring the oysters in the local waters.
“We put 550 million animals back into the Bay last year,” Gomes said.
On the Bay, Daniel Webster said the waterman are in fact the best conservationists.
“We don’t want to catch the last oyster, the last crab,” he said. “What would we do? We’d be on the welfare lines.”
O’Malley also proposed $7.5 million in the 2013 budget to go towards oyster bar restoration on two of Maryland’s sanctuaries and $500,000 to go towards aquaculture improvements, according to a release from Governor’s office.