Oyster season opened on a tentative note Wednesday, amid doubts about whether a two-year rebound in the commercial harvest of the Chesapeake Bay's bivalves could continue.
There appeared to be fewer watermen working Wednesday in Broad Creek, an Eastern Shore tributary of the Choptank River where more than 120 boats congregated on opening day last year, according to Drew Koslow, the Choptank Riverkeeper. Watermen said the oysters they were pulling up with scissor-like tongs seemed to be smaller, too.
"We're not expecting the catch to be as good as it was last year," said P.T. Hambleton, who runs a seafood business in Bozman. Watermen who'd checked reefs before the season started found oysters smaller than what they'd pulled up last fall, Hambleton said.
But Michael D. Naylor, who oversees shellfishing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said state officials still expect "a lot of pressure" on the state's wild oyster beds, as watermen have had to endure a poor year of crabbing.
The bay's oysters are a shadow of their legendary bounty more than a century ago, when the annual harvest hit a peak of 15 million bushels in 1884. Since then, the population - and the catch - has declined dramatically as a result of overfishing, loss of reef habitat and a pair of diseases that kill the bivalves before they can grow to marketable size.
Since 1994, scientists figure the bay's oyster population has languished at 1 percent or less of its historic abundance. The harvest hit an all-time low of 26,471 bushels a decade ago.
In the past few years, the catch has quadrupled, and state surveys estimate the oyster population has more than doubled to reach its highest point since the mid-1980s, before the last wave of disease.
The rebound occurred even as the O'Malley administration set aside a quarter of the remaining oyster habitat as sanctuaries, closed to commercial harvesting. Over the past few years, state and federal agencies began intensively rebuilding the reefs and planting millions of hatchery-reared baby oysters. Besides their value as food, oysters play a vital role in the bay's ecology, filtering impurities from the water and providing habitat for other fish and aquatic creatures.
While state officials are counting on the sanctuaries spreading oysters beyond their boundaries, Naylor attributed the wild oyster rebound so far largely to two bumper crops of baby bivalves in 2010 and 2012 and to the diseases abating so that more oysters are surviving.
The number of watermen harvesting oysters has grown in tandem with their gradual recovery, more than doubling over the past decade. Nearly 1,100 watermen reported harvesting 422,000 bushels last year. Worth an estimated $14 million dockside, it was the highest catch in 15 years, according to DNR
Naylor said that oyster reproduction the past two years has been "okay," but he predicted that without another bumper crop of baby bivalves, or spat, "the catch is going to drop."
A few years ago, before the sanctuary buildup and the latest rebound in wild catch, a study led by some University of Maryland scientists recommended halting all commercial harvests, warning that too many were still being taken for the population to remain viable. State officials at the time said they saw no need for a moratorium, noting that their restoration efforts would ensure oysters' survival in the bay.
The ranks of watermen pursuing oysters could conceivably double to 2,000 under the permit cap set by DNR, Naylor said. While state officials are moving toward setting harvest targets, Naylor said, he saw no need at this time to clamp down on the number of people in the fishery. He predicted the harvest would be roughly the same no matter how many watermen are in it, calling it a "self-limiting fishery."
"Areas are fished to the point of exhaustion," he said, "to the point where you can't possibly make a living there anymore. This fishery has been like this for over 100 years. I don't think there's any particular concern that continuing it like it is now is going to cause some new harm."
UPDATE: Michael J. Wilberg, the UM scientist who was chief author of the 2011 paper urging officials to consider halting the harvest, said while things appear better now he still has concerns about the sustainability of the oyster fishery.
"The new management and restoration activities that have been implemented may have put the fishery on a more sustainable footing," Wilberg said by email. "However, to my knowledge the effect of those management changes on changes in harvest has not been evaluated yet."
Wilberg led another study published in 2013, which concluded that "a moratorium coupled with substantial habitat restoration is the most rapid path toward recovery."