From all reports, based on conversations with watermen, buyers and state officials, this year’s traditional oyster season running from October 2021 through March 2022 has been exceptionally strong.
That’s good news from an economic point of view and also from a survival point of view since oysters have long been an important source of protein in our food supply. Few would disagree that food is important for survival.
But before I get into the statistics about the current oyster harvest, I have to comment on Vladimir Putin’s insane invasion of Ukraine which is negatively affecting all of us. There’s nothing like a war to put the essentials of human survival in immediate perspective.
Putin’s war is all too graphically showing us the horrifying and, even worse, numbing spectacle of mass graves being dug for the victims of Russia’s constant shelling, pregnant women wounded in a bomb-struck maternity hospital, fleeing families killed in the streets by flying shrapnel, park trees being cut down for wood so people can build fires to stay warm, and – to connect the dots – the prospect of people having to fight and scrounge for food because of military sieges cutting off supply lines. That’s where basic hunting and gathering – including the harvesting of oysters – comes into play as part of a survival mode.
Few of us have ever witnessed this level or scale of barbarism, especially in towns and cities looking strikingly like our own.
So, which will come first, Putin’s objective of completely subjugating Ukraine and its people with the possible use of a tactical nuclear weapon? Or, will the people of Russia, feeling the heat of the economic sanctions eviscerating their life savings and quality of life, rise up to stop the madman?
As for oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake region, high fuel costs resulting from the war and other inflationary pressure, are one of the few dampers being felt by the watermen this year. What a difference a year makes.
This time last year wild-caught oysters were bringing an average of about $20 per bushel to the watermen and that’s only when there was market. Many days watermen were told to stay home because there would be no market due to restaurants closed during the pandemic. In the depths of February last year, only three days of market in a week was not unusual.
This year, with the pandemic subsiding and the economy reopening, the price of oysters to the watermen have risen to an average of about $42 per bushel – twice last year’s price and more in keeping with the year before the pandemic took real hold.
Chris Judy, director of Maryland Department of Natural Resources Shellfish Program, provided me with a ton of information, current and historic.
“The season is going very well,” said Judy, “with strong harvests and good prices. Oystermen have been catching their daily limit early (well before noon) for most of the season. This speaks to the abundance of oysters, as it is more typical to need most of the day and even the entire day to catch the limit.”
And to paint a little more rosiness into the picture, Judy added: “There are numerous smalls and market oysters still on the bars for next season.” One waterman who tongs and power dredges in Broad Creek and the nearby waters of the lower Choptank River echoed Judy’s comments.
“Lots of spat and little oysters still out there,” he said. “If nothing happens to them we should have a good season next year too.”
A brief summary at the end of the recent Maryland Oyster Population Status Report drilled a little deeper into the optimism. The report noted that in 2020 and 2021, surveys found strong spat sets (baby oysters) both years in the Chesapeake’s productive oyster beds, “continued low disease, continued low mortality, and continued increases in biomass.”
Biomass is defined as the total mass of resident organisms, which in the case of this report, means that the total number of oysters in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake continues to grow. That’s good news for the environmental health of the Bay and the economic health of the region. The most recent survey found that 2021’s estimated oyster biomass in the Chesapeake is at its highest level in 28 years.
In what is considered one of the world’s longest running annual surveys, Maryland has been sampling approximately 250 oyster beds from around the state’s waters since 1939. It’s estimated there are more than 150,000 acres of natural bars in the system with varying levels of productivity. The survey gathers data related to salinity – so critical for oyster production, the availability of shells on the bottom – cultch – available for oyster spat to set on, mortality rates, and overall biomass.
The state uses an ABCD classification with A being the most productive areas of wild beds and D being the least productive. That A classification denotes high oyster densities, good habitat and low mortality. The areas in the A category of most productive include Broad Creek and the Tred Avon River in Talbot County, Fishing Bay and Honga River in Dorchester County, and Pocomoke Sound and Tangier Sound North in Somerset County. The least productive oyster bars based on the sampling were in Upper Chesapeake Bay, Upper Middle Chesapeake Bay and Lower Middle Chesapeake Bay, as well as the lower Chester River in Kent and Queen Anne’s County and Miles River in Talbot. Lower salinity levels in the upper portions of the Chesapeake play a significant role in lower oyster productivity.
For the 2020-2021 season, there were 1,239 permits issued for oyster harvesting in what the state deems Public Shellfish Fishery Areas. In addition to the public fishery areas, the state has also approved leases of about 7,500 acres of bottom throughout state waters for the private cultivation of oysters, known as aquaculture. Those leases entail areas as small as an acre or up to 100 acres and more.
For the 2022 calendar year, the state has 273 approved leases granted to 248 different people. In 2019, according to state reports, aquaculture represented 20 percent of that year’s total harvest.
Based on all reports, the 2021-2022 harvest is expected to significantly exceed the 332,946 bushels recorded for the 2020-2021 season. At a conservative estimate of an average of $35 per bushel to the watermen, the total value of this year’s harvest will likely exceed $12 million.
Here are the final words given to me recently by Chris Judy: “Oysters aren’t yet recovered or restored. There is much more progress needed for that to occur. But given these strong indicators, plus the abundance of small (sublegal) and market oysters that are on many bars (harvest bars and sanctuary bars), the data show upward trends, a good status for oysters, a sustainable fishery, and a bright future in the near term. There is no justification for a moratorium — if anyone is considering such an action. The data and status of oysters don’t support that at all.”
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.