Ravaged by disease fueled by three years of drought conditions, Maryland oyster harvests are crashing this winter, sending watermen home with lighter workboats and pushing prices higher at area seafood restaurants.
The blue crab harvest, too, dropped last season amid efforts by Virginia and Maryland to replenish the population in the Chesapeake Bay. Still, the crabbers' take did not fall to the historic low registered in 2000.
So far in the oyster season, 28,000 bushels have been harvested -- on pace to break the state's record low of 80,000 bushels in 1993-94, said Eric C. Schwaab, director of the Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Service.
As a result, restaurant owners have been forced to seek out oysters from other regions of the country, while wholesale prices for the distinctive briny Chesapeake oyster have jumped from an estimated $16 a bushel to $35 -- translating in some restaurants for customers to about $1 more per dozen on the half shell.
"I hate to go somewhere else to buy the product, but you've got to keep your restaurant going and make a living," said Wayne Copsey, owner of Copsey's Wholesale Seafood Restaurant in Mechanicsville.
"I know different watermen who have just tied their boats up because they can't make it," Copsey said. "It's upsetting."
Oyster harvest numbers are especially low this season, and the area's drought conditions have proved ripe for salinity-loving parasites such as MSX and Dermo. Without rain and its runoff to flush through the bay watershed, salinity levels have remained high and the parasites that kill oysters have thrived, Schwaab said.
The small harvest makes an already grim situation much worse for the oyster industry, which has been struggling with dwindling stocks for two decades.
Oysters used to be the top commercial business in the region. Watermen could leave at daybreak and come back with their limits by 10 a.m. Today, watermen may labor from dawn to 4 p.m. but still not catch their limit, said Barry Schomborg, plant manager for United Shellfish Co. in Grasonville, Md.
Last season, Schomborg's seafood processing and distributing business ordered 90 percent of its oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. This season, only 25 percent comes from the bay; the rest are shipped from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Washington state, Schomborg said.
The shortage has not made it impossible to get local oysters in the area, but the small harvests have doubled prices. Dan Donnelly, general manager of Cantler's Riverside Inn near Annapolis said he has no choice but to buy oysters from local waters because the restaurant advertises that it does so.
"Our reputation is based on what we harvest in the bay," Donnelly said. "There's still a demand for them."
Some local oyster processors and wholesalers are putting their hopes in possible new approaches. The National Academy of Sciences is studying whether to introduce to the Chesapeake an Asian oyster that is more resistant to the devastating diseases.
Schwaab said DNR officials also are interested in what studies will reveal about the Asian oyster. "Clearly, this turn of events has caused more people to look more aggressively to that as an answer," he said.
The 2002 Maryland blue crab harvest from the bay and coastal Atlantic Ocean fell -- from 24.5 million pounds of hard, soft and peeler crabs at the end of the 2001 season to 23.7 million through the end of October, said John Surrick, DNR spokesman.
The season officially ended Dec. 15, but the additional numbers are not available. Those figures are not expected to make a big difference in the 2002 total.
The smaller harvest comes after Maryland and Virginia agreed to cut crab catches by 15 percent, leaving more females to spawn. The 2001 season also ended early, Surrick said.
Last season's harvest was still higher than the 20.7 million pounds caught in 2000, Surrick said.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.