TILGHMAN, MD. -- The three young watermen sitting in the office of Harrison Oyster Co. couldn't wait to talk about their troubles.

Lonnie Gowe has a wife who is expecting a baby in two months, and he has quit using his own boat to save on expenses. Bruce Lowery has a family to worry about, too; he and Mace Connolly don't know how they will be able to make the payments on their homes and boats.

Disease has decimated the harvest of Chesapeake Bay oysters, their livelihood, and in the process decimated their plans. "All we can do is keep borrowing and borrowing to pay for it so we can keep from losing it," Lowery said. "And we can't even sell out," Connolly added.

Watermen seem stunned that the oysters are gone, killed by the disease called MSX.

Fifty years ago, oyster harvests in the bay topped more than 2 million bushels. Talbot County alone was producing about 375,000 bushels, and more than 100,000 of those came from the Tilghman area. This year, the state estimates that only 500,000 bushels will be harvested in the entire bay. It will be the second time the harvest has dipped below 1 million bushels.

That means the three watermen will each bring in about two bushels daily.

Oyster packer Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison IV says most watermen won't accept his $16-per-bushel offer for hand-tonged oysters from the bay's tributaries. They are much smaller than the oysters harvested from other parts of the bay by patent tongers and dredgers.

A bushel of oysters used to yield eight pints of meat. "The best oysters that we have around here are yielding 4 1/2 to five pints of oyster meat," Harrison said.

Many of the skipjack captains are staying in port. Three years ago, one worker at Harrison's business recalls, there were so many boats waiting to unload at midafternoon that it was diffficult for other marine traffic to pass.

But now the shuckers and all but two workers are gone, and the dock is eerily quiet. About 10 boats supply Harrison with 60 to 70 bushels of oysters he buys daily.

Gowe has decided to try clamming for a while, although the market for clams is not much better.

Mark Cummings, who started on the water in 1971, has opened his own painting and wallpapering business. He says he would like the oyster business to be the way he remembers it, the way it was when his father and grandfather made their livings from it. When he graduated from high school, he went out on his own and found himself "doing good right away."

Although he could make some money during crab season, he said, the season is short. "Oyster season has always been the bread and butter of working on the water," Cummings said.

Gowe, Lowery and Connolly say they have thought about quitting, but they don't know what they would do.

"There's people working in McDonald's with PhDs," Connolly said. "How are we supposed to do that with high school diplomas?"

Connolly was fined $150 by a Department of Natural Resources police officer for having too many under-size oysters in one of the four bushels he brought in. At one time, a waterman who got a fine would simply work an extra hour or two to make it up. But in this season, Connolly says, a $150 fine hurts.

Connolly and his two friends admit that, if an oyster is close to three inches, they'll likely throw it in with the rest and take their chances on getting caught.

"I'm just trying to survive," Gowe said. "That's all I'm trying to do... . What do they expect? A man's got to feed his family."

Some watermen, they say, are also harvesting closed oyster beds.

"What's the sense in not opening it and letting {the oyster} die?" said Lowery.

DNR police report that homeowners who have stocked the shallow waters off their piers with oysters for their personal use have been complaining that watermen are coming in too close to the shore.

Some say they will never quit. After unloading his small catch, David Leonard said it would not keep him from doing out the next day.

"I got to until I die," he said. "That's the only thing that'll keep me from going."