Extremely low tides combined with sustained freezing temperatures are posing what one Maryland oyster farmer calls a potential “doomsday scenario” for the harvest of farm-raised oysters.
While oysters can live in water even if they’re underneath frozen ice, they’ll die if exposed to cold air for a long period. Should the tide be low for a several days, leaving farm-raised oysters exposed to the elements, farmers such as Patrick Hudson could lose the bulk of their product.
“Literally, this is one of the only things that keeps me up at night,” said Hudson, who divides his time between Baltimore, where he owns the Local Oyster, and Southern Maryland, where he runs True Chesapeake Oyster Co. “This is the fundamental risk of being an oyster farmer.”
Unusually low tides rolled in Thursday and are expected to continue through the weekend, with blustery winds from the northwest forecast to persist, said Jason Elliott, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.
Those winds are forecast to usher even more intense cold, with lows expected in the single digits and wind chills as much as 15 degrees below zero this weekend.
When the Patapsco River hit low tide Thursday afternoon at Fort McHenry, the waters were 3 1/2 feet lower than normal as the "bomb cyclone" storm impacting the East Coast blew waters out of the harbor.
The cold can hinder watermen who catch wild oysters as well, with sustained ice making waterways difficult to navigate or, in some cases, impassible.
Lou Fleming, manager at Faidley’s Seafood in Baltimore, buys from watermen along the Chesapeake Bay. He said the coming weeks could see a shortage of oysters, though the current supply is steady.
“It never affects what’s happening now,” Fleming said. “It’ll affect the following week.”
If the tide situation doesn’t disrupt the harvest, Hudson said, Maryland farmers could be at an advantage over oyster farmers from other parts of the country who have been forced to shut down because of the cold.
But that’s in an ideal situation. Hudson began his business five years ago, and said had this year’s scenario happened when he first started, he would have been having a “breakdown” worrying over it. But over the years, he and his crew have learned to adapt as best they can during periods of extreme cold, for example moving some of their oysters to deeper water.
“We’ve done really everything we can. We just have to hope for the best.”
State natural resources officials released an oyster restoration plan Friday calling for new investment in some Chesapeake Bay waterways and, potentially, one day allowing watermen periodic access to harvest inside oyster sanctuaries.