- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — When a harvest of hatchery-produced oysters failed to yield the catch watermen expected last month, organizers regrouped and re-schemed.

Scientists agreed it wouldn’t hurt — and might even help — the health of the reserve reefs if watermen were allowed to take more oysters.

More than 800 bushels of healthy, native Chesapeake oysters have been scooped up so far. Now, two more harvest dates are scheduled.

“They promised us when they opened it up, they’d let us harvest until a certain amount of them were caught,” said Ben Parks, an oysterman in Cambridge who has been monitoring and maintaining the reserve reefs in the Choptank River since 2001. “They’re keeping their promise.”

The three reserves, tended in the Choptank and Chester rivers, represent three years of work by a partnership of watermen, researchers, state and federal resource managers, the Army Corps of Engineers and industry officials.

The flexibility of the operation, partners say, demonstrates how dedicated they are to keeping their unusual cooperative strong.

Their goal is to find a way to restore devastated populations of native Chesapeake Bay oysters. At the same time, Maryland officials are investigating the feasibility of introducing an oyster native to China.

The Bay’s reefs are wrecked by disease and overharvesting, and oystermen’s take from the waters last year was an all-time low of 19,000 bushels. An assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) declared the historic fishery “virtually nonexistent.”

Struggling oystermen agreed to close three active bars to create areas for the scattering of millions of hatchery-produced baby oysters, called spat. They vowed not to take oysters from the reserves and promised they would help police them from rogue harvesters.

The aid of watermen was crucial to the reserves’ success, said Mathilde Egge, programs administrator of the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, a group helping to coordinate the project.

Those who regularly work those tributaries are the best equipped for the work of tending them — stripping the bar of old oysters at the start of a planting and carrying them to other working reefs.

Each year, they clear off an additional part of the reef and scatter more spat.

“They’re going to tell us what areas are good or not,” Miss Egge said. “Their knowledge of the Bay is probably more valuable than any of ours behind the desk or in the laboratory.”

In return, scientists and resource managers agreed to open the bars for harvesting — but only by using old-fashioned, hand-operated tongs or by diving and only on specified days. They also stipulated that the oysters would have to be allowed to grow to 4 inches, an inch larger than current restrictions allow.

Now, besides opening up the bar to additional harvest days, the partnership is allowing watermen to take more oysters by lowering the size limit to 3 inches on the two reefs near Cambridge and Rock Hall, and they are allowing a few more bushels per oystermen.

Watermen found that on one of the Chester River reefs, called Emory Hollow, there weren’t as many 4-inch oysters as expected.

“They were working their butts off, and it was taking them an hour to get a bushel,” Miss Egge said. “It’s important to us to make sure they have their due in this whole process.” Moreover, scientists found that on the reef near Cambridge, called Bolingbroke Sands, that the disease Dermo had taken hold.

Researchers believe that clearing more bivalves from the bar could help to rid it of some of the disease, loosening Dermo’s hold on the reef, she said.

“We don’t know a lot about these diseases and how to control them,” Miss Egge said. “All these measures are meant to increase, as much as possible, their chance for survival. We certainly don’t want to put these hatchery oysters out in a place where we know they’re all going to die.”

About 50 watermen have taken advantage of the reserve harvesting days so far, Miss Egge said, a turnout they consider a success. Even on the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, more than a dozen boats showed up.

The short-term payoff is crucial for oystermen, said Mr. Parks, who has seen his fellow watermen retire their boats and give up harvesting the decimated reefs. But it’s the long-term goal, of studying active bars and finding a way to save the industry, that motivates him, he said.

“In all probability, if the oysters come back, at my age, I won’t live long enough to make any money off it,” he said. “But your hope is that they’re still here for the younger generation, so they can see what I’ve seen. I’d like to see a generation of younger watermen make a living.”

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