- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland oystermen will have a longer season this year and are anticipating high prices for oysters because production in the Gulf Coast has been crippled by hurricanes.

The season started Tuesday instead of early November.

A bushel of oysters from the Chesapeake Bay could fetch more than $40 this winter, up from about $30 a bushel last season, because of sharply reduced supply from Louisiana, which typically produces 40 percent of the nation’s oysters, and other Gulf Coast states.

“We have a critical need for oysters right now,” said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, anticipating higher demand, decided last month to open the power dredging oyster season two weeks early this year. Virginia also opened oyster season early.

But industry officials said the early seasons won’t make a significant difference in the nation’s supply of oysters this year because the Chesapeake Bay catch is nothing close to the catches that typically come from the Gulf Coast region.

Maryland, for example, turned in 72,000 bushels of oysters last year, compared with millions of bushels each from Mississippi and Louisiana.

Last week Louisiana delayed indefinitely its oyster season on public waters east of the Mississippi River, and the state of Mississippi will have no season this year, said Bradley Randall, shellfish program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

“We probably had about 90 to 95 percent mortality in our commercial area,” said Mr. Randall, who said it would take at least two years for the industry there to reach the levels they were before Hurricane Katrina.

In Florida, the oyster beds were spared much destruction from Katrina, but a persistent red tide has made oystering there impossible.

The oyster season opened Sept. 1 but was closed two days later because of the red tide, a toxic algae bloom, said Mark Berrigan of the Florida Division of Aquaculture.

“It’s not very encouraging right now” for oysters from the Gulf Coast, Mr. Berrigan said. “I hope they find some oysters up there.”

Maryland watermen said it’s too early to tell whether a longer season will boost oyster production. Until the dredgers get out into Tangier Sound, where most power dredging is conducted, they won’t know what the oyster beds look like, Mr. Sieling said.

It’s possible the annual harvest will be about the same as last year, just harvested earlier.

“There are only so many oysters out there,” he said.

Power dredging season in Maryland lasts through March. Last year, the state issued 267 permits for oyster dredging.

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