ANNAPOLIS -- Oysters will be more expensive this winter, but at least they will be available, even if they have to be flown in from Louisiana and other faraway oyster-producing states, seafood marketers and restaurant managers said.
While local gourmets insist that Maryland oysters are plumper and tastier, they may have to settle for what they can get, since the state's oyster industry has been ravaged by overharvesting, pollution and a mysterious disease called MSX.
Meanwhile, Maryland seafood marketers are promoting clams and crabs and trying to convince consumers that they cannot get sick from eating an oyster infected with MSX. Several shellfish scientists agreed that MSX can make an oyster dry and stringy, but it won't hurt a human being.
"When MSX kills an oyster, it does so very quickly," said William F. Sieling, Maryland's seafood marketing director. "An oyster is either good to eat or it is dead. There's no question about people eating them. Secondly, MSX isn't harmful to human beings. The only harm is to oysters.
"The other aspect is that oysters are probably going to be very expensive this winter," Sieling continued. "They're in short supply up and down the East Coast for various reasons. You may not be able to get them all the time. I've heard several people talking about them being $30 a bushel, and they were up in the $20 range last year."
Denise Sullivan, general manager of Middleton's Tavern, a popular tourist restaurant and oyster bar at the City Dock in Annapolis, said her restaurant will have oysters no matter what the cost. "We have to get them," she said. "With our location and our tavern style and seafood offerings, we feel compelled to have them whatever they cost."
Middleton's is now selling Louisiana oysters on the half shell for $3.95 a half dozen, and oyster "shooters" -- a single raw oyster smothered in hot cocktail sauce served in a shot glass followed by another shot of draft beer -- for 99 cents. "I'm sure we'll be raising the price later this winter," Sullivan said.
Kim Shanaberger, manager and food buyer for Busch's Chesapeake Inn, near Annapolis, said that last year, raw oysters were selling for 25 to 30 cents each, but their price this winter will rise probably to 40 to 50 cents each.
"In past years, we've always gotten bay oysters," she said. "Now this year, I really don't know. It will probably be a cross between bay and Louisiana oysters," which she said would be smaller and saltier than those from the bay.
At the Maryland Inn in Annapolis, food and beverage manager Bruce Golder said he is serving Louisiana oysters, even though their quality is "less than appropriate." They are small and not very juicy, he said, and so many have to be thrown away that oysters are no longer a profitable item on the menu.
"We have to offer them to our customers in an area like this," Golder said, "being on the water and with people coming here for seafood."