Maryland Oysters Doubled Since 2010

The oyster season just ended was outstanding and next season is expected to be good too. Maryland just released its 2013 Oyster Survey and finds the oyster population has more than doubled since 2010, reaching the highest level since the current monitoring system began in 1985.

“Preliminary harvest reports for the past season have already surpassed 400,000 bushels – with a dockside value in excess of $13 million ─ the highest in at least 15 years,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Joe Gill.

But before getting too excited, keep in mind that since 1994 the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has languished at less than one percent of historic levels.

oyster basket
A bushel of oysters (Courtesy Maryland DNR)

In the 1980’s, watermen harvested about 2 million bushels of oysters a year. Around the 1880’s, it was more like 15 million bushels a year. So less than a half-million bushels of bushels this past season, while great, is not all that good.

“Coupled with the survey results, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic a sustainable oyster population can once again play a vital role in the Bay’s ecosystem and Maryland’s economy,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill

Over the past 30 years, the amount of suitable oyster habitat has declined 80 percent ─ from 200,000 acres down to 36,000 acres ─ and Maryland’s once renowned oyster harvest fell from about 1.5 million bushels a year to an average of 142,000.

So the state has been working to increase Maryland oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. They started programs.

Maryland and its partners increased oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of remaining quality habitat. They also planted a national record 1.25 billion native spat in Maryland last year, increased areas open to leasing for oyster aquaculture and streamlined the permitting process, established a $3.9 million financial assistance program for aquaculture interests, and maintained 76 percent of the Bay’s remaining quality oyster habitat for a more targeted, sustainable and scientifically managed public oyster fishery.

Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries (Courtesy Maryland DNR)
Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuary map (Courtesy Maryland DNR)

“These survey results indicate that our multi-pronged strategy to restore our native oyster population is paying off,” said Governor Martin O’Malley. “While this progress is noteworthy, it underscores the need to stay the course, reinforcing our commitment to protect our investment and rebuild this essential, iconic species.”

State officials attribute the season’s increase to oysters surviving the past few years and strong reproduction in 2010 and 2012. That sounds simple, but it’s not really.

According to the survey, at 92 percent, oyster samples revealed the highest survival rate (the number of oysters found alive in a sample), since 1985 when these measurements began.

oysters
(Courtesy Maryland DNR)

The Maryland Oyster Biomass Index, a measure of the oyster population, was also the highest since 1985.  Oyster reproduction was slightly above the 29-year midpoint, but was largely confined to the lower portion of the Bay.

Oyster diseases remain at relatively low levels.

“Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries continue to provide oysters with a refuge from harvest pressure, enabling the re-establishment of oyster reefs and associated ecosystem services and allowing natural selection to foster disease resistance,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell.

The Maryland oyster season ended March 31 and the new season doesn’t start until October 1.

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