In an effort to take some of the sting out of this year's dismal crab harvest, state officials will let Maryland's watermen get a jump on the oyster season.
Watermen using hand tongs and mechanical tongs and divers will be allowed to harvest oysters from Sept. 25 to Sept. 27, the state Department of Natural Resources announced yesterday. The season is to open Oct. 2. The extra days will "provide some benefit to watermen who are struggling with low crab harvests this summer," said Eric Schwaab, DNR's fisheries services director.
And they would have "negligible impact on the [overall] harvest," added department spokesman John Surrick.
Watermen weren't impressed.
"Big deal," said Tommy Haddaway, president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association. "Three days. That's 30 bushels of oysters. We're only allowed 10 a day." At $14 to $18 a bushel, that's about $540 at best, which "won't come anywhere near what we lost on the crab season."
Haddaway said Talbot County watermen had asked DNR to open the season Sept. 15, two weeks early.
This year's crab harvest in Maryland has been at record lows, with watermen landing a reported 9.7 million pounds between April and July, the first four months of the season. And although state officials don't have figures for August, it is unlikely they will be any better, Surrick said.
Russel Dize, a crab wholesaler on Tilghman Island, said that the crab catch this year has been "off by a third or more," but that it seems to be picking up.
"The guys that are crabbing now are catching twice as many as they were, but it's still not good," said Dize, who was not so critical of the early oyster season opening.
"It'll help the guys make a week's work. A lot of guys have already cut out because crabs were so down."
But it isn't clear whether the oyster harvest will help the watermen's financial position. Oyster landings, once about 24 million bushels a year, have been ravaged by disease and overharvesting, falling to a low of 79,618 bushels in the 1993-1994 season. The figures have since rebounded somewhat, partly because of restoration programs in Virginia and Maryland.
Watermen reported landing 430,000 bushels in the 1998-1999 season, and DNR estimates the harvest last season was about 380,000 bushels.