TILGHMAN ISLAND - Bud Harrison Jr. likes to tell his customers that the oysters they're eating for dinner slept in the Chesapeake Bay last night. Lately, he's able to say that a lot.
Since the oyster season began in October, some watermen working in the lower Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound have been catching their limit every day. And the oysters they're getting, the watermen say, are plumper and bigger than in years past.
The bounty comes just in time for Christmas, when many families enjoy the bivalve raw or in oyster fritters and stew. For Harrison, it means his Chesapeake House restaurant can serve his oysters-made-nine-ways buffets every Friday night and still have enough for a New Year's Day oyster buffet. And it means that at his packing house near the Tilghman drawbridge, all the oysters have been sold even before they've been shucked.
"There are more oysters being caught around Tilghman Island and in the Choptank River than there ever were last year," Harrison said. "The customers at the restaurant are more ecstatic than they have ever been."
This year's catch hardly stacks up to the harvest's heyday in the 1970s, when oystermen could catch millions of bushels each season and the local oyster houses employed dozens of shuckers. But it's better than it has been in the past few years, when diseases spread throughout the bay and the harvest plummeted to the tens of thousands of bushels.
Last year, as the region recovered from the drought of 2002, the harvest was a paltry 26,000 bushels. This year, in the middle of the season, the harvest is already about 20,000 bushels, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The season ends in March.
News of the improved harvest comes after reports that watermen enjoyed a better-than-average crab harvest this year. It also comes as the department is considering putting Asian oysters into the Chesapeake Bay in the hope that they will be more resistant to disease.
Many watermen and scientists attribute the improved harvest to the mild summer and wet spring, which reduced bay salinity and inhibited the diseases that thrive in saltier water.
"These favorable environmental conditions are definitely fueling this regional rebound," said Christopher Judy, the DNR's shellfish program manager.
But Judy and the watermen are also convinced that power dredging, which turns over the oysters on the bottom, removing silt, has helped oysters thrive.
Power dredging was the method of choice in catching oysters in the late 1800s, when oystermen would drag a heavy, steel cage behind a motorized boat to "rake" up the oysters and turn over empty shells. But the method took so many oysters out of the water that for nearly 100 years, lawmakers declared that oystermen could work only under sail.
Over the past few years, as the oyster harvest dropped to record lows, the Department of Natural Resources opened some areas of the bay to power dredging. Two years ago, the agency announced that it would expand power dredging. Now the practice is allowed in about a quarter of Maryland's waters.
Watermen say the expansion has thrown them a lifeline.
"The only ones doing good are the power dredgers. Hand-tonging is pretty much extinct," said St. Michaels waterman Guy Spurry. "You take power dredging away and you would have nobody out there oystering."
Bruce Lowery of Tilghman Island agreed. He and partner Bart Murphy caught their limit of 12 bushels apiece three days last week. Earlier this week, they pulled into Harrison Oyster Co. with nine bushels each. It was a respectable take for an eight-hour day this time of year, but dismal compared with 25 years ago, when Lowery could catch that much in two hours.
Still, Lowery said, "If it weren't for power dredging, we wouldn't have none right now. It's tremendous. It's probably improved 70 percent since power dredging started two years ago."
Larry Simns, the president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said power dredging has worked so well that he would like to have the whole bay open to motorized oystering.
"We've probably been harvesting oysters the wrong way forever," he said. "If we'd been power dredging, we'd be in better shape than we are now."
Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist Bill Goldsborough said this year's numbers from Tangier Sound convinced him of the effectiveness of power dredging. But he said the method might not be appropriate throughout the bay because it can flatten hills on the bottom that prevent silting.
"This has got to be considered a tool they use selectively," he said. "It looks like it's a net positive in Tangier Sound. That doesn't mean it will be that way everywhere."
University of Maryland oyster biologist Roger Newell is more critical of the technique. He said the harvest goes up because it is much easier to catch the last of the oysters on a bar, cleaning it out and stifling reproduction.
"You've got a back-door method of going in and taking out the last oysters," Newell said. "And the more oysters you take out, the less animals there are."
Deal Island waterman Roy Ford said that is not a concern. He said he's seeing a lot of great-looking small oysters that, if they survive, could mean a banner season next year.
"Whenever you see young crabs and young oysters, it's encouraging. You have something to look forward to," Ford said. "You just hope and pray that they survive."
Back at Harrison's dock, the customers seem less concerned with how the watermen got the oysters than with getting them home for Christmas. Tilghman charter boat captain Mike Lipski paid $100 for two boxes of oysters - some as big as his hand. He was planning to haul them back to Dundalk and spend the next couple of days shucking them - the first step in turning them into oyster stew, steamed oysters and other tasty recipes that would go down nicely with a cold beer.
As Lipski packed up, retired oysterman Clifford "Big Daddy" Wilson admired his load. The oysters, he observed, were in excellent shape.
"This has been the best year for right many years," he said. "They ain't got rich, but they made something."