By Erin Tyszko
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Maryland Fishermen are expected to harvest fewer oysters during the 2017-2018 season because poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay over the past few years has reduced the number of baby oysters that have had a chance to develop into full adulthood, state officials said.
Chris Judy, the director of shellfish for the Department of Natural Resources, said there could potentially be a 10 percent decline in the expected oyster harvest during the six-month season that began Oct. 2. It could cost fisherman $1 million this year in dockside value, which is about 22,000 bushels, he said.
Jim Mullin, the executive director of the Oyster Association, said any year’s oyster population is based on the number of oyster larvae that has attached itself to a surface, such as a shell, in the previous three to four years. These larvae, known as spat, must then be given several years to grow into full adulthood before they can be harvested.
Spat can be impacted by overharvesting or poor water quality, Mullin said. If there isn’t a good spat set in past years, he said, then the current population of adult oysters will not be as high as otherwise projected. He said the last promising spat set was in 2012 – and most of those oysters were harvested in 2015.
“We have had a bad harvest in years past so we don’t anticipate our numbers being high,” Mullin said. “I want to spread public awareness of how important clean water is for our ecosystem for our organisms to prosper. Keeping our streams and rivers clean, recycling, not littering, it is all interconnected directly down to how it impacts our food supply.”
The state and wildlife management organizations are taking several steps this year to protect oysters from being overharvested.
The measures include a new website called the Commercial Shellfish Harvester Closure Area Information Portal, which tells fishermen where they can and cannot harvest oysters.
“The information that these watermen are looking for is too complicated to put into a book so with this new innovative, online tool, it allows people to easily access areas that are legal to catch oysters,” Judy said.
In addition, the state is working with local nonprofits to encourage restaurants to recycle oyster shells.
The Department of Maryland Natural Resources has partnered with Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), a non-profit established to expand the oyster population and restore the water quality of the bay.
In 2010, ORP established the Shell Recycling Alliance (SRA), another nonprofit that helps manage the recycling of oyster shells by restaurants. Under the recycling program, local restaurants are encouraged to send used shells to an oyster hatchery at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point.
The hatchery then manipulates the shells with differing water temperatures to resemble the seasons to condition the shells to produce larvae. The larvae are then returned to the bay, where the cycle of life continues.
The SRA is hoping to return 30,000 bushels of shells to the bay per year through public drop sites throughout the state. Rotational areas have also been established where within certain harvest areas, parts of the bay are closed for years, allowing the oysters to grow safely until the population has rebounded enough to allow them to be fished.
“Whether people are going to consume or conserve oysters, they are a big deal to many throughout Maryland,” Judy said. “We want to be proactive in saving the bay.”
Oysters are known for filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day, and they also invite smaller fish and other organisms that all prosper off one another, according to local fishermen.
“Oysters not only improve the health of the bay, but they also produce a diverse ecosystem on the bottom,” Judy said. “It is important for people to understand that filtering is one important aspect, but it is really about the rich ecology they create for the environment.”
According to Maryland Natural Resources, last season watermen harvested about 224,000 bushels of oysters with a dockside value of $9 million.
Candy Thomson, a spokesperson for the Maryland Natural Resources Police Department, said “along with the number of bushels caught last season, 88 citations and 114 written warnings were given out for oyster violations.”
Maryland oysters are known for their salty taste. Supporting local watermen has increased the popularity of oysters, officials said.
“They are processed here in the state and for the first time Maryland has stopped importing oysters and rely now only on our local population,” Mullin said.
Commercial watermen may work between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday only. However, oyster season only goes through the winter because the spring is for feeding and summer is when they reproduce.
Recently, researchers found that Maryland’s waterways have been contaminated with carbon dioxide. The Baltimore Sun reported that carbonic acid has dissolved into the oceans, increasing the level of acidity to 30 percent. Acidic water kills coral and can disrupt oyster reproduction, which leaves water in danger.
“Pollutants levels are always of concern and we hope that collaboratively working with many groups, organizations, agencies and the public that the bay is able to provide clean habitat and water quality for the growth and population of oysters,” said David Balzer, director of fishing and boating services for the Department of Natural Resources.