- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — Preliminary results of a state survey show what Maryland oystermen have suspected since they started scraping the Chesapeake’s desolate reefs last month — the oyster harvest this season is likely to be the state’s worst ever.

Oyster harvesters set a record low with last year’s catch of 53,000 bushels over the six-month season. This year, they are set to pull in less than half that amount, said Chris Judy, shellfish program director at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

DNR’s survey found about 50 oyster boats in Maryland’s part of the Bay and its tributaries. The survey estimated 70 harvesters worked the boats, down from 437 last year and 2,500 in 1999.

“You find some [oysters], but you can’t make a day’s work out of it,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “You can’t stay out there all day for a bushel or two bushels.”

The season opened Oct. 1 and ends March 31, but “for a lot of people, the season is over now. The legal-sized oysters are in such low quantities, they can’t make a living,” Mr. Judy said.

The survey, which aims to assess how well oysters are surviving and reproducing in the Bay, offers more bad news for watermen. Dermo, one of two diseases ravaging Chesapeake oysters, was not significantly knocked down by the year’s heavy rainfall, Mr. Judy said.

“Over the four-year drought, the diseases escalated, and mortality went up and up and up,” he said. “In a wet year, people would expect better news. But the stage was set over the last four years.”

State scientists still hope to see less MSX, the other disease killing Bay oysters, because it’s generally more affected by lower salinity levels that come with heavy rains, Mr. Judy said.

Final results of the state’s Fall Oyster Survey should be available by late January.

The reduced catch isn’t translating into higher prices, Mr. Simns said. Oystermen are getting about $25 a bushel, he said.

“The problem is Louisiana and Texas have got all the oysters they want, so they ship them in here and it keeps the price down,” he said.

Oystermen pay about $300 in license fees to gather oysters. But the low hauls have caused about half of the licensed oystermen to give up and return to crabbing, Mr. Simns said.

“I know a lot of them would like to get that $300 back, because they couldn’t get enough to make it worthwhile,” he said.

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