Seafood lovers slurping oysters may not be the most appealing sight, but you'll see a lot of it at the 21st annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival this weekend.

The two-day Oyster Festival, which began as a Lexington Park Rotary Club promotion of the Maryland watermen's way of life, has attracted more than 25,000 visitors to this historic bay area in recent years. According to festival administrator Tom Burke, it also is considered a way to show the public that Maryland's oyster beds have not been depleted by a mysterious disease known as MSX.

Pete Jensen, director of fisheries for Maryland, said drought conditions in the last two years have caused higher salinity in the bay. MSX and dermocystidium marinus, diseases caused by protozoa that seem to thrive in salty bay water, are fatal to young oysters.

"We opened the season 15 days late this year" because of the reduced crop, Jensen said. He added that the diseases do not taint mature oysters for human consumption.END NOTES

Frank Mullin, a District resident, is one of 12 finalists from six states and the District to compete in an oyster cookoff Saturday for the $1,000 grand prize in Leonardtown. Contestants will cook a fresh oyster specialty dish for a panel of five judges.

There will also be performances by a jazz ensemble, soft rock and bluegrass bands, a gospel singer, a barbershop quartet and square dancers, as well as pony rides and shows featuring Toto the clown for the children. Numerous food, art and craft exhibits will be on display.

On Sunday, men and women champions from 10 states compete in the National Oyster Shucking Championship contest. The winner will receive $300 in cash and an all-expense-paid trip to Galway, Ireland, to represent the United States in a battle for the international shucking title.

The entrance fee is $2 for adults and free for children under 12. Parking is included. Festival proceeds will go to county charities. The fair is held at the Leonardtown fairgrounds.

For further information, call the Oyster Festival Office in Hollywood, Md., at 301-373-5242.