Maryland oyster harvest hits 35-year high

By Timothy B. Wheeler, Bay Journal News Service

Maryland boatmen enjoyed the best season of wild oysters last fall and winter in 35 years, according to preliminary state data, a possible sign that the Chesapeake Bay’s keystone species may finally be catching up. recover from the diseases that began to ravage them in the 1980s.

About 511,000 bushels of oysters were landed during the six-month season that ended March 31, according to an incomplete count from the state Department of Natural Resources. It’s the best harvest since 1986-87, around the start of an outbreak of MSX and Dermo that for years killed most oysters before they could grow to marketable size.

“You couldn’t ask for a better season,” said Jeff Harrison, a Talbot County waterman. He and many others were usually able to reach their limits, often well before the end of each day. The bounty continued throughout the season, he said, and the price they paid for their harvest also remained high.

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

These bumper harvests of baby oysters, he added, were “followed by good survival that allowed market-sized growth.”

Virginia’s harvest numbers for the season aren’t yet available, but Andrew Button, deputy director of shellfish for the state Marine Resources Commission, said the oyster population has grown to record numbers on the basis of annual reef surveys.

As MSX and Dermo reduced the wild harvest in both states, Maryland landings hit a record high of 27,000 bushels in 2003–04. But the diseases have since declined and have not caused significant mortality for years.

Record rainfall in 2018-2019, however, reduced the salinity of the bay and its rivers, stunting oyster growth and reproduction and even killing oysters in some places. Both Maryland and Virginia have imposed harvesting restrictions, reducing daily bushel limits. Virginia also shortened its season by a month, while Maryland banned harvest on Wednesdays, cutting the work week to four days.

Salinity has since rebounded and the number of juvenile DNR spat in 2020 was the best in over two decades. The agency lifted its 2021 Wednesday harvest ban while retaining lower daily bushel limits.

Virginia hasn’t eased any of the curbs on its wild fishing, which Button says means that, of late, the state’s wild harvest hasn’t increased 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 helped 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.

Maryland’s increased wild harvest has given Mike Wilberg some satisfaction. The fisheries scientist from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Environmental Science Center helped lead a computerized assessment of oyster stocks for MNR. Taking into account tons of historical and recent data, the scientists’ mathematical model predicted that last season’s harvest would be nearly 500,000 bushels.

“You would expect the fishery to show a response after a year of stellar spat,” Wilberg said. “The question then becomes, what will happen in the years to come?”

Rachel Dean, who farms oysters in Calvert County, said she wouldn’t mind seeing daily bushel limits restored to where they were in 2018.

“If we were to take cuts when things were bad,” she said, “then the reverse should be true when things are good.”

But Dorchester County waterman Bubby Powley and a few others said they weren’t eager to return to looser catch limits.

“We are happy where he is,” he said. “Until the last day, people were reaching their limits. … It’s better for the market. It lengthens things. »

Harrison, the Talbot County boatman, said there was no evidence the population was being overfished, something scientists warned was happening significantly just a few years ago. Not only have there been more oysters to harvest, he noted, but they are larger on average.

“It shows that the regions are holding together,” he said. Now, he added, “there is an opportunity to grow our industry, if we could just work with environmentalists.”

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

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

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

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