With Chesapeake Bay oysters ravaged by diseases that scientists do not understand, several marine biologists went to Capitol Hill last week to plead for research money. Without increased funding, many of them said at a conference convened by Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.), the future of the oyster industry in Maryland, Virginia and around the country is a bleak one.
Dyson, who represents the oystering areas of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, has drawn up a "rough draft" proposal for spending $52 million on oyster disease research during the next 10 years. He said it would be difficult to persuade Congress to pass his proposal, which he called vital for saving an industry that employs 1,600 people in Maryland and an estimated 10,000 nationwide.
According to some estimates, at least 50 percent of Maryland's oysters were killed by the parasite MSX last year, with oyster death rates reaching 90 percent in some traditional oyster growing areas south of Annapolis. As a result, state officials say that this winter's oyster season, which ends in March, will produce the smallest harvest in more than 100 years.
Several scientists said at the meeting that they know alarmingly little about MSX and the many other diseases that are killing increasing numbers of oysters on both sides of the continent. And while disease-resistant oysters are being produced in laboratories and by natural selection, their numbers are far too small to save the industry from disaster, scientists said.
The Maryland and Virginia oyster industry is "in crisis," said Frank O. Perkins, director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. But research, he added, "is moving along at a painfully slow pace . . . . Important studies are under way at several universities, but progress has been slow . . . due to limited funding."
While acknowledging that East Coast oysters have been hit hardest by disease, scientists from oyster-producing states on the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast said their oysters increasingly are affected by disease.
"We don't want to give the mistaken impression that this is a local or a regional problem," Dyson said. "It is a national problem."
At the turn of the century, Maryland watermen harvested more than 10 million bushels of oysters a year. During the 1986-87 season, fewer than 1 million bushels were harvested, and state officials expect a harvest of about 600,000 bushels this season. Watermen working in Virginia waters and on the Delaware Bay, where MSX almost eliminated oystering during the late 1950s, are expected to produce even fewer oysters.
Among those attending Dyson's hearing were several Marylanders who have suffered financially from oyster diseases. Harry Womack, who teaches parasitology at Salisbury State College on Maryland's Eastern Shore, said his oyster business was wiped out by MSX in three weeks last summer. "I lost my shirt," Womack said. "I hope "It's a national problem."
-- Rep. Roy Dyson
they will get some concentrated research going."
Buddy Harrison, a seafood packer from Tilghman Island, Md., also pleaded for research. He said that his business has fallen about 75 percent in recent years and that he has lost money for two years. He said much of the Eastern Shore depends on oysters for a living. "If we don't get some help soon, our towns and islands will look like the ghost towns in the Westerns," he explained. "There's no way we can keep going."