Maryland waterman enjoyed the best wild oyster season last fall and winter that they’ve had in 35 years, according to preliminary state data, a possible sign the keystone Chesapeake Bay species finally may be recovering from the diseases that began ravaging them in the 1980s.

About 511,000 bushels of oysters were landed in the six-month season that ended March 31, according to a still-incomplete tally from the state Department of Natural Resources. That’s the best harvest since 1986–87, near the beginning of an outbreak of MSX and Dermo that for years afterward killed off most oysters before they could grow to marketable size.

The 2021-22 wild oyster season in Maryland delivered the largest harvest in 35 years. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

“You couldn’t ask for a better season,” said Jeff Harrison, a Talbot County waterman. He and many others were generally able to catch their limits, often well before each day was over. The bounty continued throughout the season, he said, and the price they got paid for their harvest remained strong, too.

Chris Judy, DNR’s shellfish director, called the wild harvest last season “a notable increase” over the previous year’s, which produced 333,000 bushels. Judy attributed the jump to a few successive years of good natural reproduction, including the third-highest count in 2020 of juvenile oyster “spat” in the state’s annual fall survey of oyster reefs.

Those bumper crops of baby oysters, he added, were “followed by good survival that allowed growth to market size.”

Virginia harvest figures for the season are not yet available, but Andrew Button, deputy shellfish manager for the state Marine Resources Commission, said that the oyster population has increased to record numbers there based on annual reef surveys.

As MSX and Dermo drove the wild harvest down in both states, Maryland’s landings hit a record low of 27,000 bushels in 2003–04. But the diseases have since abated and haven’t caused significant a die-off for years.

Record rainfall in 2018–19, though, lowered salinity in the Bay and its rivers, curbing oyster growth and reproduction and even killing oysters in some places. Maryland and Virginia both imposed harvest restrictions, reducing daily bushel limits. Virginia also shortened its season by a month, while Maryland banned harvests on Wednesdays, reducing the workweek to four days.

The salinity has since rebounded, and DNR’s juvenile spat count in 2020 was the best in more than two decades. The agency lifted its Wednesday harvest ban in 2021 while retaining the lower daily bushel limits.

Virginia did not ease any of the curbs on its wild fishery, which Button said has meant that, lately, the state’s wild harvest has not grown as much as Maryland’s.

The same weather and water conditions in 2020 and 2021 that helped the wild oyster stock reproduce and grow also aided Maryland oyster farmers, who saw their harvest from leased bottom reach a record 90,029 bushels last year, surpassing its previous high of 73,000 bushels in 2017, according to DNR data.

“It’s a good time for oyster farmers,” said Scott Budden, co-owner of Orchard Point Oyster Co.

The increase in Maryland’s wild harvest gave Mike Wilberg some satisfaction. The fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science helped to lead a computer-driven stock assessment of the oyster population for DNR. Factoring in reams of historical and recent data, the scientists’ mathematical model had projected the harvest this past season would be nearly 500,000 bushels.

“You’d expect the fishery to show a response after a stellar spat set year,” Wilberg said. “The question then becomes, what’s going to happen in future years?”

Rachel Dean, who oysters in Calvert County, said she wouldn’t mind seeing the daily bushel limits restored to what they had been in 2018.

“If we needed to take cuts when things were down,” she said, “then the opposite should be true when things are up.”

But Dorchester County waterman Bubby Powley and a few others said they’re not anxious to return to more relaxed catch limits.

“We’re happy where it’s at,” he said. “Right up to the last day, people were catching their limits. … It’s better for the market. It stretches things out.”

Harrison, the Talbot County waterman, said there’s no evidence now that the population is being overfished, something scientists had warned was happening to a significant degree just a few years ago. Not only have there been more oysters to harvest, he noted, but they’re bigger on average.

“It shows the areas are sustaining themselves,” he said. Now, he added, “there’s an opportunity to grow our industry if we could just work it out with the environmental people.”

Deckhand Alan Harrison communicates the number of live oysters he culled from a dredge-full aboard the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark in 1992. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Environmentalists and watermen have been at odds for years over oyster management in Maryland, differing over the value of the extensive network of harvest-free sanctuaries established in 2010. They also disagree on the need for costly restoration efforts underway, in which tens of millions of dollars are being spent on building new oyster reefs, often with a stone instead of natural shells, and seeding them with oysters spawned in hatcheries to supplement the limited reproduction of wild oyster reefs.

“What’s going on is a natural thing,” Harrison said of the harvest increase. He predicted another good harvest next season as well, based on the number of juvenile oysters seen in the past year.

Environmentalists, though, point out that the harvest is not a reliable indicator of the Bay’s overall oyster abundance. It can also reflect the effort put into it by the watermen.

“I’m happy to see the watermen doing well,” said Allison Colden, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But she questioned whether this could be a repeat of what happened about a decade ago, when another good spat count was followed by the harvest topping 400,000 bushels, driven at least in part by a near doubling of the number of watermen going out to harvest them.

“I just hope that this is not a harbinger for another boom-and-bust cycle,” she said.

DNR’s Judy said he did not yet know the number of watermen who paid license surcharges to go oystering for the most recent season. The year before, the number had grown to 1,239, the highest in 20 years.

A few areas in Maryland waters are still being overfished, according to the latest stock assessment. Colden contended that DNR could do more to reduce that by requiring real-time harvest reporting, setting harvest quotas by area, and limiting entry into the fishery, which Virginia has done.

Another bumper crop of baby oysters this summer could help sustain the current harvest or even nudge it higher, Wilberg suggested.

“One of the big factors in all of this is we haven’t had a severe disease event in 20 years now,” Wilberg said, “so I credit the recovery of the oyster population a lot to that.”

But the conditions needed for another banner spat set also flirt with disaster. Higher water salinity improves oyster reproduction, but it also feeds the diseases.

Next year, Wilberg said, the model projects a harvest in the range of 350,000–400,000 bushels.

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com.


Timothy Wheeler, Bay Journal Media

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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