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Maryland watermen find booming oyster harvest

CHANCE — Maryland watermen are hauling in oysters at a pace not seen since before a wave of disease outbreaks in the mid-1980s devastated the fishery.

“We’ve probably got more oysters here than we’ve had in the last 20 years,” said Greg Price, a waterman based in this small fishing village near Deal Island in Somerset County. “It’s a bumper crop for what we’ve been having.”

One sign of the shucking-good times: Maryland Department of Natural Resources offices are struggling to keep up with demand for the tags that must be affixed to each bushel of oysters.

“It’s actually created a situation now where we’re running out of oyster tags,” said Mike Naylor, head of DNR’s shellfish program. “We’ve just never been in this situation where we’re in December and we still have demand for tags.”

Despite the ensuing rationing, the agency has distributed 200,000 tags since the season began Oct. 1 compared with 135,000 all of last season, Naylor said. The season doesn’t end until March 31.

The agency is still tabulating the results of the first month of the season, but the industry appears to be on track to double or triple last year’s harvest of 135,000 bushels, Naylor added.

For his part, Casey Todd, who has worked at his family’s Crisfield oyster market since 1978, said the last four years have seen improvement every year, but “this year has been a lot better. I haven’t seen this many oysters in my lifetime.”

But in the fragile oystering industry, a boon for many is a bust for all.

Lured by the promise of an easy catch, scores of working watermen are forgoing crabs and striped bass and focusing all their efforts on oysters. Even those with day jobs are burning vacation time to get in on the action, Naylor said.

As a result, the number of fishermen engaged in tonging and dredging oysters in Maryland’s water this season has bolted from the usual 500 to about 800. And seaside markets are getting flooded with oysters, driving prices down from last year’s average of about $35 a bushel to $22, Naylor said.

“They’re catching more oysters, but they’re getting less for them because the market is just saturated with them. That’s just a shame because there’s money being left on the table,” he said.

Watermen routinely raked in at least 1 million bushels of oysters until the mid-1980s, when a pair of parasitic diseases known as MSX and Dermo sharply reduced that annual harvest.

In recent years, though, oysters have survived the diseases in greater numbers. An annual state survey of selected oyster bars last year found a 92 percent survival rate, the highest level since 1985.

Scientists aren’t sure what’s driving the comeback, Naylor said. The past couple years of relatively dry weather ensure higher saltwater content in the Chesapeake Bay and better growing conditions for oysters. But those conditions also typically fuel parasitic growth as well.

Don’t chalk up the bonanza to cleaner water, Naylor cautioned. If that were the case, the gigantic harvests of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Chesapeake was the mid-Atlantic’s sewer, wouldn’t have existed.

What is known: Higher survival leads to more oysters reaching adulthood, which means greater reproduction and bigger harvests.

And for Price, who has been chasing the elusive oyster for 45 years, it paradoxically means a hard way to make a living just got harder.

“I think we’re victims of the abundance of oysters this year,” said Price, 65. “Last year, oysters held on to $30 (a bushel) the whole year, but that’s not going to happen this year.”