Volume XI, Issue 6 ~ February 6-12, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

10,000 Oysters Could Be Wrong

Why, then the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.
— Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor: 159

To keep Maryland oysters on the tables of this world, watermen and the Department of Natural Resources of the Chesapeake are opening some oyster bars, though not with swords. Instead with power dredges — and we’re watching.

“He was a bold man that first eat an oyster,” wrote Jonathan Swift in 1738. Maybe, just maybe, it would have been better had not anyone been so bold, and the first oyster tasted.

Oysters of the Chesapeake — so important to the overall health of its waters — are in big trouble. Yet because men, women and even some children find them tasty, the demand continues. So to satisfy that demand, could it be that we’re putting bivalves of the mid and lower Bay in Maryland at risk?

That’s why we’re watching. Late last month, via emergency regulation, DNR opened oyster bars in the Choptank, Honga and St. Marys rivers, also Pocomoke Sound and Fishing Bay and nearby, to dredging by power.

If you’re not familiar with power dredging, it’s what the term implies: the use of a motor to push a boat along while the dredge works into the muck at the bottom of the Bay. It’s efficient enough that, with a few exceptions, it has been banned for about 125 years. Traditionally, dredging is done only by skipjacks under sail.

Curiously, the change comes as it becomes apparent that Maryland’s oysters are at an all-time low. It appears this year’s harvest via traditional catching will be 40,000 to 50,000 bushels. Off hand that might sound like a lot of oysters … Until, one realizes that not too long ago, the harvest in good years sometimes was two million or more. Last year, it was 148,000.

Let’s look at it another way. In ’73, Capt. Buddy Harrison’s oyster operation at Tilghman Island, at the confluence of the Bay and the Choptank, shipped 2,400 to 2,600 bushels of oysters a night. No question but that more oysters went through that dock in a season than will be taken in the whole state during the current season.

I can recall oysters selling retail for less than seven bucks a bushel. It’s a volatile market these days, but as I write, the going retail price is $45. Clams, crabs and oysters: All the catches are down, and — of course — the prices are up.

A Beautiful Scheme
So as we move further into a season that shuts down at the end of next month, hard-pressed watermen want some of that dockside moola. They didn’t make much with crabs; the same with clams. And like the rest of us, they have to eat.

To them, the solution was obvious. Catch more oysters, and seeing that that couldn’t be done in traditional fashion, why not allow power dredging? In view of current oyster woes in the Chesapeake, that would be a hard sell — unless it could somehow be justified. But watermen can be a contriving lot, which is obvious to those who have heard their arguments in the past in matters dealing with crabs, clams, rockfish, shad and, of course, oysters.

What better way to get a legal crack at the oysters than to say catching them would benefit the Bay’s production and population? The word was spread. By dredging — under power, of course — watermen would rehabilitate oysters suffocating under silt, sand and anything else on the floor of the Bay.

The dredges would dig them up from under all that muck and give others a new lease on life. Legislators — who know as much about the Bay and its oysters as they do about the role cell phones play in vehicular accidents, balancing budgets and such — quickly fell for the argument. Not too enthusiastically, DNR went along with the scheme.

Now the sword of dredging is unsheathed. It’s figured that somewhere in the neighborhood of an additional 10,000 bushels will be harvested from those five areas. This has got a lot of people wondering. How do we get more oysters in the long run by catching them now when natural production and populations are in a precarious state?

First, one has to get by the crux of the woes. Oysters are in the predicament they’re in not primarily due to overcatching. The problem can be blamed on the parasites MSX and dermo. Drought and torrid temperatures the past couple years hiked the impact of these parasites, and many oysters died. Others died smothered in silt.

Now, we’re led to believe we have the perfect solution. We “cultivate” the oysters via dredging. We bring them to the top of the bottom of the Bay. This, we’re also told, will bring the smothered dead oysters up where they can create a clean and hard bottom to which new oysters can cling and prosper. Such is the life cycle of oysters.

Ain’t Necessarily So
But what we’re not told (and presumably neither were the legislators) is that this is not the prime time for bringing all those dead oysters to the floor of the Bay. Several months or more from now would be much more beneficial. That’s when the hatch comes off.

You see, down there at the bottom of the Bay, things aren’t all hunky-dory. Tides and current continually move silt around. Within a few weeks, what might seem like a neat oyster bed ready to accommodate spat can be once again inundated with silt — and long before spawning time in July and August.

Yet some Bay watermen tell of beneficial effects of power dredging done in recent years in limited areas. They claim production in some instances increased almost twofold. Bay scientists are not as convinced as administrators; on the whole, they’re skeptical at best. Also, there’s talk in the General Assembly of making this power dredging not a one-shot deal but of putting it on the books.

Good v. Harm
Methinks we could be rushing things a bit — though admittedly we’re in a position where we’re tempted to try anything. I think back to a quarter of a century ago, when I hosted then-DNR Secretary Jim Coulter on a fishing trip to Western Maryland. That evening, the conversation strayed from the walleyes, perch and bass of that reservoir to the state of the Bay.

Jim made it plain that decisions on development and other changes in the use of the Bay should be based not on whether they would harm the Bay, but on whether they would benefit the Bay. No allowances should be made for maybe. You’ve got to show evidence that change would be beneficial. Not that it would do no harm. There’s a big difference. No margin for error is the way to go.

The argument behind this power-dredging power play — which is that new baby oysters will have old oyster shells upon which they can flourish — isn’t real convincing. Yet we’re risking possibly 10,000 bushels of live, healthy oysters to find out.

Are we that desperate? The answer could (and I stress could) be yes. But this writer isn’t yet convinced. That’s why, like so many others, I’ll be watching — and hoping I’m wrong.

Enough said …



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Last updated February 6, 2003 @ 3:13am