Oyster season open for Maryland
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.
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.”