Two pieces of good news for Maryland’s oyster industry came out of Annapolis this week.
Chris Judy, Shellfish Division Director for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the 2020-2021 wild oyster harvest increased significantly over the 2019-2020 harvest. “Based on the reports from buyers, a tight estimate tells us there were about 330,000 bushels of oysters harvested this year compared to 270,000 bushels harvested in the 2019-2020 season,” said Judy.
He added that surveys of oyster spat sets in certain areas reached numbers not seen in more than 80 years. “On Deep Neck Bar in Broad Creek [Talbot County near the mouth of the Choptank River], surveys found up to 1,800 spat per bushel of oysters. That’s phenomenal. The second highest spat set we’ve seen anywhere in the Bay since 1939. There were several other bars in that area that showed sets of more than 1,000 per bushel. That’s kind of the epicenter for the good spat sets we found this year.”
Oyster spat are the tiny little oysters that attach themselves to larger oyster shells and eventually grow themselves to marketable oysters.
Judy said the good spat sets weren’t universal throughout the Bay. “Eastern Bay wasn’t so good nor was the upper Bay and the Anne Arundel shore area. But the middle and lower bay were fairly strong.”
The downside of the news is that restaurant closures due to the coronavirus resulted in lower prices to the watermen than in the previous year. “That’s because demand was down.”
The math shows that at an average price of $40 per bushel in the 2019-2020 season and 270,000 bushels caught, the total landings that year at the docks were worth $10,800,000 dollars. For the 2020-2021 season when Judy said the average price dropped to more in the vicinity of $30 per bushel, the estimated landing value was about $9,900,000.
“We saw strong harvests all season, when there was market. The daily catch limit was being caught early for most of the season, well before curfew. And there are still many market oysters and smalls on the bars. Those are good signs for the future.”
Also notable to Judy was the fact that the number of oyster surcharges – the $300 fee charged to watermen who want to add commercial oystering to their Tidal Fishing License – was not up significantly from the year before. “We track those to see how many watermen are oystering. There were 1,175 surcharges paid for the 2019-2020 season and 1,196 for the 2020-2021 season. The number of people oystering didn’t go up that much but the number of oysters harvested increased significantly. That speaks to the abundance of oysters out there. Just four years ago, for the 2017-2018 season, there were only 822 surcharges paid.”
Judy said while he considers this year’s 330,000 bushels harvested a solid year, especially compared to the last three, he said that still doesn’t compare to the million to a million and a half bushels harvested per year in the 1980s. “We’ve been in the basement for decades. We’re still trying to get back to the first floor. But we’re making progress.”
Crab catches picking up
In the meantime, word along the waterfront indicates that crabs are starting to work their way up the Bay and catches are improving. Demand is high because of the holiday weekend so retail bushel prices remain in the $250 to $350 range, but may start to ease down before the run back up to the Fourth of July.
Dennis Forney grew up on the Chester River in Chestertown. After graduating Oberlin College, he returned to the Shore where he wrote for the Queen Anne’s Record Observer, the Bay Times, the Star Democrat, and the Watermen’s Gazette. He moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1975 with his wife Becky where they lived for 45 years, raising their family and enjoying the saltwater life. Forney and Trish Vernon founded the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper serving eastern Sussex County, in 1993, where he served as publisher until 2020. He continues to write for the Cape Gazette as publisher emeritus and expanded his Delmarva footprint in 2020 with a move to Bozman in Talbot County.