Oys­ter sea­son open for Mary­land

Cecil Whig - - LOCAL - By CON­NIE CONNOLLY

Spe­cial from the Times Record

— Mary­lan­ders with a han­ker­ing for their first freshly har­vested Ch­e­sa­peake Bay oys­ters on the half-shell won’t have long to wait now.

The 2016-2017 pub­lic oys­ter har­vest sea­son in Mary­land be­gan Oct. 1 and runs through March 31. How­ever, the Mary­land De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources isn’t look­ing for a bumper crop.

The DNR said in a Sept. 28 press re­lease that their 2015 Fall Oys­ter Sur­vey “showed a rel­a­tive low spat set with mixed re­cruit­ment suc­cess, which may in­di­cate an av­er­age-to-de­clin­ing oys­ter har­vest this sea­son.”

In other words, fewer baby oys­ters, or spats, may mean fewer adult oys­ters this year.

AN­NAPO­LIS

Talbot County Water­men As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Bunky Chance agrees “to a point,” he said in a Sept. 29 in­ter­view. “Mother Na­ture doesn’t al­ways play by the rules.”

Chance, a wa­ter­man, is more con­cerned with the short­ened har­vest sea­son which af­fects water­men’s in­comes.

“One thing about it,” he said, “them bills keep comin’. Them bills don’t care whether you have a good spat set or not.”

A month-long ad­van­tage is given to divers and water­men us­ing shaft and patent tongs, which are more dif­fi­cult meth­ods of har­vest­ing. Their sea­son be­gins Oct. 1 while dredg­ing be­gins Nov. 1.

It’s the “busiest por­tion of the oys­ter sea­son ... when har­vest meth­ods ex­pand to in­clude sail dredg­ing and power dredg­ing in des­ig­nated ar­eas of Calvert, Dorch­ester, Som­er­set, St. Mary’s, Talbot and Wi­comico coun­ties,” ac­cord­ing to the DNR.

Mark Connolly, a wa­ter­man from Til­gh­man Is­land, dredges the breadth of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay from Rock Hall to the Mary­land-Vir­ginia line. “Ev­ery­body’s say­ing it’s go­ing to be worse,” he said, “but they say that ev­ery year.”

Ac­cord­ing to the DNR’s Sept. 28 press re­lease, “Mary­land’s oys­ter pop­u­la­tion still has far to go be­fore be­ing con­sid­ered re­cov­ered.”

That’s the bad news. How­ever, Chance is op­ti­mistic about what he and other water­men are see­ing in Broad Creek that may sig­nal a good spat set in com­ing sea­sons.

“Now this is anec­do­tal, but what we’re see­ing is such a high level of (oys­ter) lar­vae that crabs even have them on their shells,” he said. “That’s gotta be a lot of lar­vae (for them) to at­tach to a mov­ing crab.”

Ac­cord­ing to the DNR’s press re­lease, “last sea­son, 1,146 li­censed Mary­land water­men har­vested 383,090 bushels of oys­ters with a dock­side value of $14.9 mil­lion. This was a slight de­cline from the prior sea­son of 393,588 bushels, which was the se­cond high­est in 15 years pri­mar­ily due to good oys­ter re­pro­duc­tion in 2010 and 2012 and strong sur­vival rates.”

Water­men may work Mon­day through Fri­day from sun­rise to 3 p.m. in Oc­to­ber and Jan­uary through March, and from sun­rise to sun­set in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber. The min­i­mum har­vest size is 3 inches. The daily limit is 15 bushels per per­son, not to ex­ceed 30 bushels per boat.

Chance would pre­fer a longer oys­ter sea­son to al­low water­men to to make more profit. He wishes the sea­son spanned the tra­di­tional “months with an R in them,” he said.

“The sea­son used to come in Sept. 1 and went out April 30 (with the work­day from) “sun-up to sun­down. In the last 40 years, we’ve given up the equiv­a­lent of three months (of the oys­ter sea­son),” Chance said.

“It’s one of the big­gest chal­lenges (we face) that the pub­lic doesn’t un­der­stand. They only see poach­ing in the head­lines,” Chance said. “You take three months off your in­come and see if you sense a lit­tle frus­tra­tion.”

Poach­ing does re­main a chal­lenge for Mary­land Nat­u­ral Re­sources Po­lice. Ac­cord­ing to the DNR, poach­ers “harm both on­go­ing restora­tion ef­forts as well as oys­ter­men.”

Dur­ing this year’s oys­ter sea­son, Nat­u­ral Re­sources Po­lice “will de­ploy wa­ter pa­trols, con­duct ae­rial and radar sur­veil­lance, and in­spect whole­sale and re­tail es­tab­lish­ments. District court judges with spe­cial train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence will hear the cases.”

Last year, of­fi­cers wrote 211 ci­ta­tions for oys­ter vi­o­la­tions, rang­ing from har­vest­ing un­der­sized oys­ters to poach­ing from pro­tected sanc­tu­ar­ies, ac­cord­ing to the DNR.

One of the restora­tion ef­forts that both Chance and Connolly claim has harmed com­mer­cial water­men is the Horn Point Oys­ter Hatch­ery. Connolly says that it “took away 25 per­cent of our best bot­tom. (The hatch­ery) can’t do the vol­ume of what Mother Na­ture can do.” He thinks the for­mer pro­gram called “Seed and Shell” was more pro­duc­tive.

Chance agrees. He says that more oys­ter spats are cre­ated in Broad Creek be­cause har­vest­ing oys­ters mit­i­gates the silt­ing that smoth­ers spats in an undis­turbed sanc­tu­ary.

In­creas­ing the com­mer­cial oys­ter fleet has also cre­ated chal­lenges for water­men.

“(The state) crammed us all into a tighter space,” Connolly said, by is­su­ing more com­mer­cial li­censes while re­duc­ing the har­vest­ing ter­ri­tory.

It’s not unusual, Connolly said, for him to travel three hours “be­fore you go to work” dredg­ing a pro­duc­tive oys­ter bed.

“Al­though blue crabs are fat and plen­ti­ful this time of year, it is oys­ters on the half shell that tra­di­tion­ally bring Mary­lan­ders to­gether in the fall and win­ter months,” Mary­land De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources Sec­re­tary Mark Bel­ton said. “The (oys­ter) species is as iconic as the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay with deep ties to our cul­ture and her­itage. Oys­ters con­tinue to play an im­por­tant role in both our ecol­ogy and econ­omy.”

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