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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

2008-2009 Oyster Season Off to Slow Start

Watermen say demand is down

Oystering is off to a slow start this fall for watermen and the seafood industry in Virginia and Maryland.

While there's the longstanding issue of the declining number of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, people in the seafood business are finding another problem: There's little demand from consumers.

Even though the holiday season from Thanksgiving through Christmas is prime time for eating oysters in stuffing and stew, few people are buying.

"It's off from last year," said Joe Morotti, owner of Joe's Seafood, a carryout shop in Severna Park. He wouldn't speculate why sales were slow, but hoped last-minute Thanksgiving customers would come in today and tomorrow.

Mr. Morotti was selling pints of shucked oysters for $12.99 for bay oysters and $16.99 for Chincoteagues.

Some watermen can't find much work oystering, because they can't sell what they catch.

"The economy is so bad, they're only working two to three days a week," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

Waterman Joe Kubert of Kent Island said oystering already is a tough business because watermen are limited by law to working five days per week. Add to that the depressed market and the days that are lost to bad weather and "It's the worst it's been in years," he said.

Mr. Simns encourages the public to give oysters a try and not to worry too much about the depleted oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.

While the oyster population is low due to past overharvesting and pollution and diseases that don't affect humans, the species is carefully watched to avoid a complete wipeout. The population is estimated to be at just 1 or 2 percent of historic levels.

Though watermen and the state regulators often disagree over how the oyster harvest is managed, they have the same goal of making sure oysters aren't overharvested, Mr. Simns said.

"If it's on the market, it's good. Don't try to manage the market yourself by not buying," because that only hurts watermen, seafood processors, retailers and restaurants, he said.

The oyster season opened Oct. 1 and runs through the end of March.

Oysterman says: I already have a couple of pints of shucked to make the stuffing for the turkey - HERE IS THE RECIPIE:

Today I think I'll go out and stimulate the economy and help the local producers by buying a couple of dozen to open tonight. There is nothing like oysters that were just harvested! Cheers.


Friday, November 14, 2008

State Seeks Ways to Back Aquaculture Industry

Proposal would help businesses, individuals raise oysters in bay

By Timothy B. Wheeler

Seeking to boost Maryland's fledgling aquaculture industry, the O'Malley administration plans to introduce legislation to make it easier for people and businesses to raise oysters or other shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay.

The administration has drafted a bill that would overhaul the state's law that now limits leasing of the water and the bay bottom to private entities that want to raise oysters or clams. The measure was presented last night at the state's Aquaculture Coordinating Council meeting in Annapolis. (AWESOME!)

Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin said the state needs to cut away the red tape and legal limitations on leasing in the Chesapeake if the state's once-prolific oyster industry is going to recover from the diseases that have devastated the Chesapeake's oyster population over the past two decades.

"If you look worldwide, the only places where oysters seem to be thriving is in aquaculture settings," Griffin said yesterday. "There's very few public fisheries left."

The Principle of Oyster Aquaculture - CLICK HERE:

The initiative comes as Maryland, Virginia and the federal government weigh how to go about restoring the bay's disease-depleted oyster stocks as well as its industry, which once harvested millions of bushels of bivalves annually. Harvests in recent years have been a fraction of historical levels, though, as a pair of parasitic diseases have killed off the oysters before they can grow to marketable size. Scientists have said that the bay's once-abundant oysters helped filter pollution from the estuary.

A small but growing cadre of people, including some watermen, are trying their hand at raising oysters. Some say they are finding ways to beat the diseases but remain hampered by legal and bureaucratic hurdles - with the state's leasing restrictions among the most nettlesome.

"We have 100-plus years of cobbled-together, piecemeal" leasing law, said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland and a member of the aquaculture council. He said the law "doesn't make sense in today's world."

There are currently 7,276 acres leased in Maryland waters, with about 300 individuals holding 700 20-year leases. However, relatively little of that is being used to raise oysters, state officials say.

State law prohibits leasing where oysters grow naturally. But those restrictions are based on century-old surveys, when oysters were much more abundant, so much of the bay is off-limits. Leasing also is completely banned in a handful of counties.

"We've got to clear away some of that underbrush and help to build our industry here," Griffin said.

The administration bill proposes to reserve for wild harvest only those waters where oysters recently were caught and to remove limitations on the size and location of leases. It also would remove the ban on corporations holding leases.

The measure would also establish a pair of "aquaculture enterprise zones" in the Patuxent and Rhode rivers. In those 50-acre tracts, leasing would be streamlined and essentially "pre-permitted" to make it easier to start raising oysters - either on the bottom or in floats on the water. Though given rights to use the bay for 20 years, leaseholders would be required to use their leases or risk losing them.

The bay's watermen traditionally have opposed any significant expansion of private leasing of the bay, fearing it would deprive them of the ability to pluck wild oysters from the most productive reefs. But with most wild oysters gone, at least some watermen are beginning to eye private aquaculture as a means of continuing to make a living from the bay.

"We don't have nowhere else to turn," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. With the decline of the public fishery, and the state's ability to support it, he said that "if we don't do something ourselves, it ain't going to happen."

Simns said watermen remain wary. They want an opportunity or even guarantee they'll be able to get good leases, he said. They also want to be shown that they can make money raising oysters rather than roaming the bay to harvest what nature produces. He argued that the oyster diseases remain the biggest hurdle to large-scale aquaculture.

Waterfront property owners also may resist an expansion of aquaculture. Some have objected at times to private oyster floats or clam beds along the shore, where they complain they are unsightly and impede boating.

State officials say the legislation would bar leases within 50 feet of the shoreline or a pier, or in narrow creeks, coves or inlets - a provision meant to address landowner complaints.

Oysterman's take on this:

"I still think about how cool it would be to have a couple of oyster floats in my backyard. Any time the desire strikes, I could walk down to the floats and collect a dozen or two. Then, walk back to the house and put them on the grill.

That's the problem with living on fresh water. Oh well".


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Three Methods Vie to Restore Oysters to Chesapeake Bay

By Scott Harper
Link to original article:

Virginians are weighing in with their choices for a preferred grand strategy for restoring oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and so far, the winner seems to be an old favorite - sticking with the native species.

A side-by-side comparison of an Asian oyster, left, and a native oyster. The Asian species grow faster and are more resistant to disease. (Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot)

At public meetings last week in Newport News and Colonial Beach, most speakers said they think an Asian oyster is too biologically risky to introduce directly into the Bay.

This majority includes scientists, environmentalists and watermen. They instead want government to step up its efforts at bringing back the native Eastern oyster from near extinction, despite minimal success over the past 15 years at doing so.

The Asian animal, also known as ariakensis or the Suminoe oyster, is not a silver bullet, said Jay O'Dell, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, at a three-hour public hearing Friday night in Newport News.

Other Atlantic coastal states, he said, are opposed to the foreign species as well, fearing it could spread into their waters and carry new problems if Virginia and Maryland decide to give the China Sea import an adopted home in the Bay.

"It's just way too early to give up on the Eastern oyster," O'Dell said.

He said federal, state and local governments have spent "only about $58 million" on native recovery efforts since the mid-1990s. "That's decimal dust in the federal budget," O'Dell said.

A meaningful program, he and others said, would cost $520 million over 10 years.

The hearings last week stem from the release of a major environmental study on restoration alternatives for Chesapeake oysters.

Native stocks have sunk to historic lows because of disease, pollution, overfishing and lost habitat. This has left the Bay without a key natural filter of pollutants and has decimated a once-powerful oyster industry.

Led by the Army Corps of Engineers and taking five years and nearly $15 million to complete, the study reached no conclusions about a top strategy, but it suggested three combination plans.

All three call for increased funding and attention to the native species, one supports careful cultivation of sterile Asians in controlled settings, and one includes a direct introduction of reproducing Asian oysters.

In advance of choosing a path, the corps scheduled six public meetings, three in Virginia and three in Maryland.

The corps expects to announce a final plan by June.

The third and final public hearing in Virginia is tonight on the Eastern Shore, where interest in farming native oysters is gaining momentum.

The biggest champions of an Asian introduction are seafood merchants and other business interests that have watched shucking houses close, jobs disappear and profits fall for several decades.

More recently, they have trumpeted successes with the Asian oyster in controlled field tests. The animals grow to market size faster than natives, taste about the same and, most important, do not die of local diseases.

"Until we get an organism that beats the disease, we're not going to have any success, no matter how much money we throw at it," said Robert Johnson, a Suffolk seafood executive, at Friday night's hearing.

Johnson said private industry would pay for most of the Asian work, while native restoration relies mostly on taxpayer money.

A.J. Erskine, president of the Virginia Seafood Council, said the long debate Friday night - and for the past decade - misses a key point.

"No one is saying we should stop one thing and do another," he said. "We're saying do both - continue working with natives as well as with ariakensis. Why can't we look at both?"