Years of paltry oyster harvests have left Bill Beck, a waterman on Maryland's Eastern Shore for 21 of his 39 years, wondering if the business will exist by the time his 9-year-old son reaches adulthood.
Harvesting oysters, crabs or rockfish for 10 to 15 hours a day earns Beck just $25,000 a year. The dwindling supply of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay -- last season's haul was about 24,000 bushels, less than 1 percent of what it was three decades ago -- has hurt him the most.
"It's getting worse. There's no oysters. There's nothing there," Beck said.
Yesterday morning, three generations of the Beck family -- Bill, his son Craig and his father, John Beck, a 76-year-old waterman -- boarded their boat with renewed optimism as nearly 4,000 bushels of disease-free oysters were made available for harvesting for the first time since they were hatched and planted three years ago.
The Becks were among two dozen watermen, some scuba-diving and some using hand tongs, who set out to get their share of the disease-free oysters from three managed reserves, known as Emory Hollow and Blunts Bar in the Chester River and Bolingbroke Sands in the Choptank River. The oysters were spawned at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, then planted in the managed reserves, where they grew under the supervision of scientists. Almost 200 million oysters have been planted since 2001, officials said.
While watermen have been able to harvest oysters elsewhere, they agreed not to harvest in the managed reserves for several years until the majority of the oysters grew to four inches, one inch bigger than the state's legal size. Those oysters command a higher price and have a better chance of reproducing, organizers said. In return, state officials promised to open up the oyster bars periodically, particularly around the holidays when demand is higher. The watermen will next be able to harvest oysters, which also help filter the water, at the three sites Nov. 13.
"It's a beautiful concept in a sense because it's brought commercial interests and environmental interests together," said William Goldsborough, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Yet not all the watermen left with big bundles of oysters yesterday. At Emory Hollow, the seven participating watermen collected just 10 to 15 bushels. The nine watermen at the Blunts Bar site fared better, collecting 97 bushels.
Mathilde Egge, program administrator for the Oyster Recovery Partnership, one of the project managers, said the watermen were barred from harvesting many of the oysters at Emory Hollow because they were smaller than four inches. Egge said that before the next scheduled harvesting, organizers would try to determine how to ensure that oystermen take home a bigger haul. "This is the first go-around," she said.
"Terrible," Bill Beck said as he stood at the edge of his boat. "It took us over an hour to catch a bushel." The Becks had worked diligently along the Chester River, Bill Beck dragging a hand tong through the water as his son and father sorted and measured their catch.
His son Craig, a fourth-grader, didn't seem to mind. "I like measuring them," he said as he scooted tiny crabs away from the oysters. "I just like the water."
Several organizations and federal agencies worked together to manage the project, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit group whose mission is to restore the bay's oyster population.
The managed reserve program is one of many efforts to reverse what scientists have called a disturbing trend. Once the Chesapeake Bay's premiere species, native oysters have been virtually wiped out due to over-harvesting and disease. In addition to the managed reserve program, some researchers have turned to creating sanctuaries filled with oysters that watermen are barred from harvesting. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources also is considering introducing a nonnative -- and, they hope, disease-resistant -- species to the bay.
Federal funding for oyster restoration efforts in Maryland and Virginia exceeded $4 million this year, organizers of yesterday's event said.
The managed reserve method is "the beginning of a new approach to managing oysters and oyster disease," said Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
David Phillips, 42, a waterman from the Talbot County town of Wittman, said he welcomes any effort to increase the oyster supply. Phillips drove his boat 20 miles to the Emory Hollow reserve, a nearly two-hour trip, to participate yesterday.
"I think it's a great opportunity," he said, as he stood on the edge of his boat in bright orange overalls.
Phillips said he hopes such efforts will save his profession.
"It's a dying breed," Phillips said. "Everybody that was on the water got off the water because you can't make a living."