Although Maryland's annual oyster season is producing record low numbers of oysters, the tasty mollusks may be easier to find and less expensive than many consumers expected, state officials say.
"We have more oysters than we can market," said Bill Sieling, chief of seafood marketing for the state Department of Agriculture.
State officials have prepared a series of television advertisements to encourage people to eat Maryland oysters. The advertisements are to be aired this week.
Many oysters were killed by a disease caused by a parasite known as MSX. State officials said that consumers may incorrectly believe that the disease can be transmitted to people.
"Because of the disease being prevalent, people have become concerned that there's some reason they shouldn't be eating the oysters," Sieling said. "We've ended up with the worst of both worlds: Decreased supply and decreased demand, which has really been devastating to the industry."
MSX, which wiped out 90 percent of the oysters in many Maryland oyster-growing areas, does not harm humans, state officials say. Furthermore, watermen are not taking oysters from heavily infected areas because most of the oysters there are dead. Large flotillas of oyster boats have moved north to the Annapolis area from infected areas.
Because of the low oyster catch in the season that opened Oct. 1, watermen had expected the shellfish to fetch well above $30 a bushel. But most watermen are making less than $25 a bushel. Last year, prices peaked at about $20 a bushel. This year, watermen have harvested about 25 percent fewer oysters than last year, and the catch is expected to decline.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said many oystermen were hauling in up to 10 bushels a day in early October, but few are now catching more than three or four bushels a day. The harvests are likely to fall further as the easy-to-get oysters are taken, he said. "Anybody that can find another job has . . . found it," Simns said. "A lot of people are still crabbing, which is awful late in the year to do."