Maryland's oyster season opens today amid gloomy predictions of another meager harvest and with no long-term solutions in sight.
Healthy, mature oysters are as scarce as ever in the Chesapeake Bay, and natural resources officials and watermen expect no rebound from last year's catch of 120,000 bushels, a record low.
"I don't think it'll be any better than it was last year. I just hope it's as good," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
The only places free of the diseases Dermo and MSX, which have killed off most mature oysters throughout the bay, are in the upper Chester and Choptank rivers and in some areas along the Western Shore north of the Bay Bridge, Mr. Simns said.
"All we're doing is hanging in there," he said of the few hundred watermen who still bother to go oystering.
One such fisherman, Philip C. Dean, predicted that all marketable shellfish would be taken in the first six weeks of a 5 1/2 -month season.
"I think [oysters] will last up until the first of December," said Mr. Dean of Tilghman, who plans to tong on the Chester River today. Last year, he went oystering only 18 days.
Many of the watermen plan to stick with crabbing for now, Mr. Simns said. They fear not only a lack of oysters but also low prices at the dock, since local seafood packers are buying shellfish from Louisiana and Texas for only $16 per bushel.
The outlook in the lower Chesapeake Bay is even gloomier because of a die-off in Virginia waters and the Potomac River caused by low salinity after heavy spring rains.
Virginia has reduced its season to 2 1/2 months and set a catch ceiling of 6,000 bushels covering all publicly owned oyster beds.
Maryland's harvest last year was less than a 10th of what it had been seven years before. But state officials made no changes in catch rules for this season and are awaiting the outcome of discussions that began last summer among watermen, scientists, state officials, environmentalists and aquaculturalists.
The talks, which seek a consensus among feuding factions about the state's management of oysters, are scheduled to continue Monday in Annapolis.
The group has been discussing a proposal to bar harvests on about 40 acres in the upper Chester and upper Choptank, and to stop transplanting potentially diseased young oysters to those rivers.
University of Maryland scientists had proposed a five-year experiment with a large stretch of river to determine whether shellfish stocks could be restored by easing harvest pressure, rebuilding oyster reefs and planting disease-free "seed" oysters from a hatchery.
Aquaculture advocates, meanwhile, had suggested forming a nonprofit cooperative venture with watermen and others to try raising oysters on the bay bottom or in floating racks.
Up to 20 such pilot projects were proposed to show that oysters can be "farmed" for a profit.
"What watermen want to see, which is entirely reasonable, is proof that [aquaculture] will make rather than break them economically," said Tom Hopkins, president of the Maryland Aquaculture Association.
But watermen are reluctant to stop harvesting in the Chester, which has the largest remaining shellfish population in the upper bay, or to stop transplanting young "seed" oysters to fresher water in those two rivers.
That is the only way young oysters can grow to 3-inch market size without being killed, said Mr. Simns, because the saltier waters where oysters reproduce best are also where MSX and Dermo are most virulent.
"There's just no easy fix or solution to this thing," he said. "As long as the disease is there, there's nothing we can do about it."
He added that watermen would like Maryland scientists to study other oyster species to determine whether they can survive the diseases and grow in bay waters. Virginia scientists already are testing the disease resistance of Japanese oysters.
Environmentalists expressed disappointment with the watermen's stand. "It's awfully discouraging, with all the compromising we've done so far . . . not to go anywhere because of watermen's opposition," said William Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"It just looks like we're going to have to go down to the last [oyster in the bay]," Mr. Goldsborough said.