Wild oyster harvest numbers offer optimism
Seafood industry hopeful after most plentiful surge since 1987
Maryland watermen sold more than a half-million bushels of wild oysters this winter, more than they have since 1987, according to preliminary state data.
It’s a positive sign for a species known for dangerous population swings in recent decades. But it is not yet proof of a sustained recovery for Chesapeake Bay oysters, which suffered from massive overfishing for decades and, more recently, from diseases that for now remain at bay.
That is likely to fuel continued debate over Maryland’s strategies to help oysters, including using sanctuaries, designated oyster reefs where watermen are prohibited from harvesting.
Still, it’s a good time for those who love to eat the succulent bivalves. The wild harvest’s success coincides with an all-time high in the state’s output of farmed oysters, which are being grown inside cages in waterways around the Chesapeake at a rate of more than 90,000 bushels a year.
As the state’s seafood industry works to move past slumping demand earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic and overcome persistent challenges with labor and rising costs, the wild harvest numbers offer reason for optimism.
“It’s a happy confluence of events that has not totally happened by accident,” said Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
To be sure, much of the success of the oyster species depends on weather. A record-setting year of rain in 2018 caused an influx of fresh water to the bay that made
it difficult for oysters to spawn and survive, as they thrive in saltier waters.
But watermen and oyster lovers have gotten luckier with conditions in more recent years, which allowed for more oyster larvae to plant themselves onto oyster reefs and then grow into shellfish large enough to be legally harvested.
At the same time, while saltier waters also can allow diseases such as MSX and Dermo to spread among oysters, that hasn’t happened. Infections with such diseases have historically wiped out large numbers of Chesapeake oysters every year since the 1950s, but outbreaks have become more rare in recent years, including in the season that ran from Nov. 1 through March 31.
Many oysters also survived through the early period of the pandemic without much harvesting pressure, as public health restrictions and consumer fears meant raw bars weren’t open as much. So when watermen finally went to work at full steam this winter, including being allowed to harvest five days a week for the first time since 2018, plenty of market-sized oysters were waiting for them.
“We had some of the best markets we’ve had in a long while,” said Jeff Harrison, a Talbot County waterman.
At least 511,000 bushels are on record as being sold this past season, representing a third straight year of gains for watermen. That’s also nearly twice as many as in the 2017-2018 season, and it’s nearly 20 times more than Maryland’s smallest wild oyster harvest of less than 26,000 bushels in the 2003-2004 season, according to state Department of Natural Resources data.
It’s still a far cry from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more than 10 million bushels were harvested in peak seasons.
The latest data will go into discussions about how to manage Maryland’s oyster fishery in the coming season and into the future. The natural resources department sets rules every summer that govern what commercial watermen can and can’t do in the coming oyster season, sometimes limiting their livelihood, such as when harvesting was banned on Wednesdays starting in 2019.
Chris Judy, director of the department’s shellfish program, said the harvest data is encouraging but doesn’t paint a full picture of Maryland’s bay oyster population.
Watermen, environmentalists and scientists are awaiting the results of a broader annual assessment of the population that also takes into account the variety and quantity of oysters of different ages and sizes, not just in oyster bars open to commercial fishing, but in sanctuaries as well.
Sanctuaries cover about a quarter of the oyster reef acreage in Maryland waters, but watermen have long argued many of those protected areas aren’t thriving. They suggest regular harvesting prevents reefs from becoming smothered in silt and have pushed for access to some oyster bars that have been closed off for more than a decade.
Environmental groups say they are encouraged by the activity in the commercial oyster market but hope to see continued investment in rebuilding the oyster population through sanctuaries.
Allison Colden, Maryland senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that with the biomass of oyster populations increasing in sanctuaries at a faster rate than in the bay at large, their reproduction can help areas open to commercial fishing as well. Oysters spawn once or twice in late summer, and their larvae’s survival and habitat depend on where waters drift them.
“Not only are the sanctuaries not impeding the oyster industry, but [they] may actually be helping support them,” Colden said.
Judy noted that Maryland’s oyster population has surged to near this season’s high in the past, before the state expanded sanctuary boundaries from 9% of oyster reef bottom to 25% in 2009. That included harvests of more than 400,000 bushels as recently as the 1998-1999 season (annual harvests routinely surpassed 2 million bushels a season through the 1970s).
It’s impossible to pinpoint the effect of sanctuaries or any other strategy, such as efforts to plant oyster reefs with lab-grown spat or to build artificial oyster reefs using stone and other types of shells, Judy said. “We need more answers,” he said.
For oyster shuckers growth in the harvest is good news, though it hasn’t translated to lower prices.
Dylan Salmon, owner of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Hampden, said prices for restaurateurs have hovered around 55 to 60 cents per wild oyster, almost twice as much as a decade ago, while farmed oysters can cost 85 cents apiece.
But the rebound for local oysters was nonetheless plain to see for Salmon as he participated in a speed-shucking contest at last October’s U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County.
“I remember last year being like, ‘Oh, man, these are really big. They’re looking healthy,’ ” he said.
“Not only are the sanctuaries not impeding the oyster industry, but [they] may actually be helping support them.” — Allison Colden, Maryland senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation