Chesapeake Bay oyster sales to East Coast and other national markets have dropped dramatically in the past two months, forcing many Bay watermen and seafood houses to dock their skipjacks for the remainder of the oyster season.
Sales peaked during the last week of December, giving hope to watermen that this season would break previous sales records. But those hopes faded during the first cold days of January when the Bay iced over, killing thousands of mature oysters and temporarily cutting off production.
The ice thawed during the last week of January, but the Bay's oyster market remained in a deep freeze.
Waterman Harold Adams of Fishing Creek said Maryland hasn't recaptured buyers who bought oysters from seafood houses in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas during the freeze.
"We have been hurt because when they can't buy from us they go elsewhere and none of the buyers have come back," Adams said. "We will have a lot that we can't get rid of, and they are perishable. Supply and demand operates the seafood market."
Buddy Harrison, who owns and operates Harrison's Oyster Co., blames the drowning market on the freeze, the sagging economy and President Reagan.
"The bad economy, Reagan's speech telling everyone to tighten up their belts and the freeze -- all these factors have come together to make it rough for the oyster business," Harrison said.
In bad times such as these, people eat hamburger, not seafood, he added. "The places that are still buying oysters tell me that only affluent people are eating them."
Mass producers of frozen, breaded oysters also have cut back production because they have to borrow money at high interest rates on a short-term basis to buy the oysters for summer sales. They see no way of recovering their investment if the demand remains low.
Watermen who make their living dredging for oysters in the bay claim they are barely making ends meet. Becasuse of bad weather, one waterman last Saturday brought in only 10 bushels of oysters worth $70 but burned $50 in fuel. Another, Wylie Abbott, a waterman and muskrat trapper on Elliott's Island, quit oystering this season. "I don't fool with oystering, Abbott said. "It just isn't worth it this year."
Before the freeze, seafood houses were paying $11 a bushel for oysters. The price is now $6 to $7 a bushel.
The manager of Tangiers Sound Seafood Co. in Crisfield said his sales have been cut in half from 150 bushels a week to 75 bushels.
The oyster season, scheduled to end March 31, usually is extended through April 15 by Maryland natural resource officials. However, because the demand has dropped to record lows, "The way it is going now, it would be good if the season ends," Harrison said. The few oysters that do come in to the seafood houses are sold to small Washington and New York markets. But if watermen increase their production, buyers will have to turn them away. b
"If they got their maximum (25 bushels per man) every day, we could open only one day," said Lewis Culbertson Jr., a buyer for H. Glenwood Evans and Sons.
Culbertson, who also sells fuel to watermen, said the drop in oyster demand "is not hurting me but it is killing the watermen."