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Watermen put down tongs as oyster prices drop

DEAL ISLAND — Watermen who are upset about a drop in oyster prices have staged a strike in the hopes that buyers who must fill upcoming Thanksgiving orders will relent.

The buyers had been paying as much as $42 per bushel, but this week they lowered the price to $35, said Danny Webster of Deal Island. And rumors are circulating that the price could drop to $30 next week.

”It’s just another nail in the coffin for watermen,” he said.

About 95 percent of watermen in Dorchester, Somerset and Talbot counties decided to stop working when they heard about the drop in price Monday, he said.

So far this season, watermen are not seeing the sort of abundant harvest they had last year. They also are facing rising fuel prices for their boats.

“It’s just getting too expensive,” Webster said.

Currently, watermen and buyers are negotiating, although Webster said he isn’t sure what the outcome will be.

“We’re willing to sit down and talk to them,” he said.

Jody Tull, a waterman from Marion Station, said he saw a protest work once before when buyers dropped the price on soft crabs, then increased them after watermen complained.

While fluctuations in the seafood market are normal, Tull said he doesn’t understand why prices have been lowered so early in the season.

“Before Thanksgiving, there’s no sense in it,” he said. “Between now and New Year’s is when people eat lots and lots and lots of oysters.”

If buyers had waited until January or February to lower prices, there would probably have been no complaints, said Tull, who is vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

“I really thought the prices would last through Thanksgiving,” said Pat Reese, owner of Southern Connection Seafood in Crisfield. “It’s really unusual for them to drop this close to the holidays.”

Reese, who buys oysters from a few local boats, said the lower price is the result of a large supply versus low demand.

Currently, oysters are plentiful in North Carolina and buyers can get them for $20, Reese said.

Local oyster prices were higher during the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, but now oysters are available from Texas and elsewhere in the South.

“The only place they’re somewhat scarce is here in Maryland,” he said.

Prices are likely to drop even further this winter because buyers have more oysters than they can handle, Reese said.

Watermen know they are competing with other states in the marketplace, but Tull said the quality is not as good as Maryland oysters.

“The market is our biggest problem — we continue to get shafted,” he said. “It’s time that watermen take a stand.”