As dawn broke over the still waters of Kent Narrows on Monday, a couple of workboats carrying watermen ventured out in search of oysters.
For the first time in six years, state regulators have opened the Narrows in Queen Anne's County to shellfish harvesting — a rare instance of watermen gaining fresh territory to work and a welcome change after an icy season that undercut the state's shellfish industry.
"It's a gesture of goodwill, is what it really is," said Jim Mullin, director of the Maryland Oystermen Association, a group that advocates for watermen who spend their winters tonging, diving and dredging for oysters. Many have been sidelined for parts of this winter, but "in the meantime, the bills don't stop coming."
Cold weather froze the Chesapeake Bay's rivers and creeks — and some parts of the bay — making it nearly impossible for watermen to work for weeks at a time. Watermen are asking the state to extend the oyster season by two weeks — through mid-April — to make up for the lost time during the deep freeze.
"Watermen really took a hard hit," said waterman Lenell Jones. "It was frozen in February. We lost the whole month."
Jones, who also works for the Queen Anne's County Fire Department, said he may take his boat, My Three Kids: X, O & S, oystering on Kent Narrows this week. The Narrows is a channel between Kent Island and the Delmarva Peninsula.
After years of seeing public oyster grounds converted to no-harvest sanctuaries, the opening of the Narrows is seen as a way to help some eke out a living as the oyster season winds down.
Watermen are selling oysters for about $45 per bushel; a good price according to Bill Sieling, executive vice president of Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. Prices per bushel have ranged from the mid-$20s to the $40s in recent years. If a waterman can catch at least eight bushels in a day — most are limited by state regulations to 15 bushels each — they can turn a modest profit.
"That's a good day's work for them," said Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. He added that watermen appreciate any help they get from the state.
Oyster season usually ends March 31. Department of Natural Resources officials have endorsed the request for a two-week extension. The proposal is now before a joint panel of state delegates and senators who must approve the change.
Officials last extended the oyster season in 2000 when watermen faced a cold, icy winter similar to this year's season, according to Karis King, a spokeswoman for the natural resources department.
Kent Narrows had been closed for years for public health reasons.
Kent Narrows is lined with marinas and popular waterfront bars and restaurants with docks, drawing heavy boat traffic and creating polluted runoff from highways and parking lots. Filter-feeding oysters are particularly sensitive to pollution, so shellfish harvesting has been banned there.
When watermen asked the state to re-open the Narrows, Department of the Environment officials reviewed data and determined it's safe to eat shellfish from those waters, spokesman Jay Apperson said.
State officials used to review the Kent Narrows data more routinely, Apperson said, but as the oyster population declined, the review of data became less frequent.
"Earlier this month, we got a request from watermen, and we looked at it," he said.
Officials also noted that during winter, boating activities are reduced and the impact on water quality is less.
Kent Narrows will stay open for the remainder of this season, whether it concludes March 31 or two weeks later. It's not clear whether the Narrows will be open to harvesting for next winter's oyster season.
After six years of the Narrows waters being off limits, Jason Cruse and the crew aboard Dennis Hampton's workboat Wrangler had high hopes Monday for a good day. They'd been working a nearby area that was open to harvesting, and Cruse predicted there would be large, healthy oysters in Kent Narrows.
"There's oysters down there, big oysters," he said, while preparing the Wrangler for the day at the Queen Anne's County Watermen's Boat Basin just off U.S. Route 50.
Cruse hauled 18-foot-long oyster tongs — the rake-like devices watermen use to scoop up oysters — from a pickup truck and loaded them onto the Wrangler. While Gov. Larry Hogan has made no policy decisions about opening sanctuaries, Cruse sees the opening of Kent Narrows to oyster harvesting as a good sign the Republican's administration will be sympathetic to their industry's plight.
Under former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, the state set aside large portions of the bay and its rivers as sanctuaries where harvesting is off-limits — areas that watermen have repeatedly complained were among their most productive grounds. O'Malley also pushed the idea of aquaculture, or oyster farming, and designated areas for aquaculture leases.
"I think this new governor is definitely going to work with the watermen," said Cruse, a resident of Kent Island.
But as quickly as the Wrangler and a couple other boats started their day in the Kent Narrows, they ran into trouble.
Wrangler crew members were ticketed for harvesting in a prohibited area — they were too close to the shore, a Natural Resources police officer told them. The handful of oyster boats quickly cleared out.