This time last year, Jason Wilford was preparing to bring his farm-grown oysters to a Thanksgiving pop-up sale in Easton.
Experts say covid-19 depressed demand for oysters, in part because shucking them wasn’t popular among diners looking for quick to-go meals. That sank prices for harvesters on the Chesapeake Bay.
This year, aquaculture farmers such as Wilford and those in the rest of the oyster industry — watermen, seafood restaurants and distributors — are hoping for a rebound in demand.
“I treated this past summer as my first year of coming to market,” said Wilford, owner of Pirates Cove Oyster Co. in Dorchester County. “I was telling people I was repeating first grade.”
And thus far, most signs point in the right direction. The latest figures show a strong population of market-size oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and booming spat, or larvae, counts, particularly in the Choptank River and Tangier Sound. The data was encouraging enough that fishery managers decided to allow wild harvesting five days a week this fall instead of four.
Prices seem to be rebounding, too. During last year’s pandemic-addled season, oysters harvested from the bay typically cost distributors about $30 a bushel, down from $40 the year before. This year, the average is up to about $35 a bushel, said Chris Judy, shellfish director for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
And with about 85 percent of the state’s adult population vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Marylanders seem keen to return to oyster bars and seafood counters for dozens and bushels.
“Usually, about this time, we start to slow down,” said Kim Gardner, owner of L.P. Steamers seafood restaurant in Baltimore. “It’s still just as busy as summer.”
During a recent sunny afternoon, the dining room and picnic tables outdoors were populated by travelers from near and far, determined to crack crabs and slurp shellfish, Maryland style.
David Yi and his wife, Hannah, both from Bergen County, N.J., ordered oysters at the restaurant as part of their final stop on a road trip that began on the West Coast.
During the pandemic, the couple didn’t order oysters or other seafood meals to go. They’re just fresher in a restaurant, David Yi said. And the atmosphere certainly adds to the experience.
But not every establishment is experiencing a revival of demand just yet.
At Faidley’s Seafood in Lexington Market downtown, business hasn’t quite returned to pre-pandemic levels, said Damye Hahn, whose parents own the restaurant. She chalks it up to higher prices for gas and other goods, which could leave consumers wary of spending on delicacies such as oysters.
But she’s optimistic business will pick up during the holiday season, with Marylanders returning to larger gatherings of family and friends, toting oysters for appetizers and stuffing.
“People did not entertain last year the same way, but they came in and got smaller amounts,” Hahn said. “Whereas usually on the holidays, people would buy bushels or a half-bushel because they’d have a Thanksgiving party or they’d have a Christmas party . . . and having raw oysters would be part of their appetizers.”
Last year, when carryout was the only option, Faidley’s and other seafood locales shucked to-go oysters for customers in an effort to reel them in. While the supply of oysters was there, the demand just wasn’t the same.
“We got off the mat this year, but we didn’t come roaring back in my estimation,” said Wilford of Pirates Cove.
When Wilford planted his first round of 250,000 oysters in 2019, he’d planned to raise a million oysters a year by his third batch in 2021. Instead, he’s planted 250,000 each year.
“It’s definitely planning for the un-plannable,” he said.
Supply chain and labor struggles haven’t helped, he added. He’s lost some restaurant clients who decided not to carry oysters because of the work and know-how required to prepare them.
Luckily, Mother Nature seems to be on the industry’s side.
Baywide oyster surveys conducted by the state last year found the highest number of spat, oysters that are less than a year old, since 1999. The number of market-size oysters was the third-highest since 1999. The prevalence of disease was the lowest since 1990, when the Department of Natural Resources started measuring it, DNR’s Judy said.
A comprehensive report about the data, usually out during the summer, is still being reviewed, Judy said. It’s likely to be released in the next week.
“This season is going to be very much like last season. Harvest should be strong,” Judy said. “Covid had impacts on last season’s harvest, both in terms of demand, availability, the ability to eat out and also the price. Obviously, we’re hoping this year is much better because restaurants are open, people are going out again and we’re looking forward to a better situation than last year.”
DNR flagged six regions on its survey as experiencing overfishing. In areas such as the Choptank River and Tangier Sound, where oysters were abundant, watermen hauled out more than was sustainable, Judy said. Still, it’s an improvement from two years ago, when 19 regions were labeled as such, Judy said.
But it’s a concern that overharvesting is happening in the same areas where the most baby oysters are growing, said Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. As watermen trawl the bottom for oysters 3 inches or longer, they’ll catch younger ones in the process and toss them back into the bay. But those oysters could be damaged along the way.
“We want to make sure that we don’t squander the gift that Mother Nature has given us in a good spat set this year by causing a lot of mortality in those oysters,” Colden said.
Implementing harvest quotas baywide or in specific areas of concern could help ensure more of those spat grow to adulthood, she said.
In the meantime, watermen on the Chesapeake are excited about the return to more frequent harvesting, said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
“They’re glad to be able to get back to work five days a week,” Brown said.
— Baltimore Sun