- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Maryland watermen are likely in the midst of the worst oyster harvest on record after recent drought conditions helped devastating diseases spread, a state fisheries official said.
Through late December, watermen on the Chesapeake Bay had landed about 28,300 bushels of oysters, down dramatically from about 78,800 bushels during the same period a year ago, said Eric Schwaab, director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Service.
"That's on a pace to be our worst commercial landings on record," Mr. Schwaab said.
The harvest began Oct. 1 and ends March 31, but watermen generally bring in more oysters before Christmas because of availability and demand, he said.
The once glorious oyster harvest bottomed out during the 1993-1994 season, when about 80,000 bushels were harvested. It rebounded slightly in the late 1990s, with the take topping 400,000 one year.
The Chesapeake used to supply oysters for much of the eastern half of the country, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that the population has dwindled to less than 2 percent of what it was before European Colonists arrived. In the past few decades, diseases such as MSX and Dermo have had the largest effect on the harvest, which was more than 2.5 million bushels as recently as 1975.
Those diseases, which first appeared in the Bay during the 1960s, thrive in saltier waters.
As the 3-year-old drought peaked this summer, salinity levels in the Chesapeake and its tributaries were elevated without normal rainwater flushing through.
As a result, DNR biologists have detected the diseases in areas that typically have low salinity, such as the Chester River.
Despite the decreased harvest, Mr. Schwaab said that "there still are a lot of oysters out there capable of reproducing. The biggest challenge at this point is maintaining suitable habitat for the larva to attach to."
The DNR has worked in recent years to physically rebuild oyster reefs, work that must continue, Mr. Schwaab said.
The National Academy of Sciences is also studying whether to introduce to the Chesapeake an Asian oyster that tastes about the same as the native species and is highly resistant to MSA and Dermo.
It also grows larger and faster than the natives, and seems to do well in muddy waters, such as the Chesapeake.
"There's been some promising research done in Virginia, but it's also a huge step that should not be taken lightly," Mr. Schwaab said, referring to the problems that result when a nonnative species is introduced to an ecosystem.
Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said a lot of people in his industry are counting on the Asian oysters to work. Some Maryland lawmakers have resisted the idea, but Mr. Sieling said he expects Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to be receptive if science backs it.
"It seems to have almost all the right attributes with none of the drawbacks," he said.
Besides the role of a food and fishery, oysters play an important role in keeping the Bay healthy by filtering pollutants and improving water clarity. Their reefs also serve as habitats for a variety of aquatic life.

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