Watermen See Hope In Asian Oyster, But Little Action

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md.—The oysters Tucker Brown shucked at his processing house in Avenue were big, well grown and tasty. But, instead of being from the Chesapeake Bay and the surrounding tributaries, places he’s fished and dredged for decades as a waterman, they came up from the Gulf of Mexico.

He had just bought them that morning on a run to Virginia and was getting busy shucking, cleaning and sealing them in jars to take up for an oyster scald for local veterans.

He said making a living in his native waters is a real challenge anymore and the one thing that could make a real difference isn’t in the equation right now: the Asian oyster.

“It’s a fine oyster,” Tucker Brown said while he was putting on his apron and spraying off some fat oysters he’d just shucked. “But if we don’t do something with it Maryland’s out of the oyster industry.

“It’s bad.”

In October of last year Maryland and Virginia released a study that was supposed to find whether or not the Asian oyster was a good fit to replace the dwindling numbers of the once numerous oysters found in the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding rivers.

After five years of work, with contributions by some 90 scientists and about $15 million spent, the study came up with no definite recommendations on what to do to save the Maryland oyster industry.

The study did say the introduction of the Asian oyster was an option but it also said that a harvest moratorium on oysters was another possibility.

Tucker Brown said that the outlook for the Asian oyster was potentially a good one, especially since it appeared to be hardier than the native oyster when it came to fighting off diseases like MSX and dermo which have decimated the latter.

“The disease doesn’t bother it,” Tucker Brown said. “And it’s a fast growing oyster.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy all advocate the restoration of the native oyster, but Tucker Brown said that the native oyster just can’t seem to make it in sufficient numbers to survive much longer.

Bickering over the efficacy of the Asian oyster only wasted time, he said.

“The answer is an oyster is an oyster and it’s either going to live or it’s going to die,” Tucker Brown told The County Times. “They known the animal we’ve got is not going to live.”

Both environmentalists and watermen say that the oyster is the key to saving the bay, but over harvesting and the bay’s continued deterioration through pollution and sediment run off have harmed the oyster’s habitat as well as have diseases.

Oysters historically have kept the bay healthy by being natural filters.

Donna Sasscer, Agriculture and Seafood development manager for county government in the Department of Economic and Community Development, said that where once watermen were in close contact with her, few seek her out now.

Gone also are fundraisers held by the local Watermen’s Association, she said, where they had to raise money to buy fledgling oyster, called spats, to seed local waters in hopes that some day they would grow to the legal size of three inches to harvest.

These fundraisers were popular, she said, for the hefty amounts of fresh seafood available.

“Because it’s been so gloomy… I don’t hear from watermen very much at all,” Sasscer said. “Their fundraisers just dried up.

“People still ask me if they’re going to do it again.”

Robert Brown, Tucker Brown’s brother and fellow waterman, has taken to producing ice as well as commercial fishing to make a living.

He is anxious to see some action on the Asian oyster, too. There are less than 100 full-time watermen in the county he said.

“Doing nothing like we’ve been doing you see where that’s gotten us,” Robert Brown said as he fried up tender oysters in hot oil in the upstairs kitchenette of his ice plant in Avenue. “Bring it [the Asian oyster] on… the other oyster’s just not doing it.”

Robert Brown said that to plant 1,000 bushels of spats at 1,000 spats per bushel could cost a waterman about $10,000.

If the waterman got 100 percent yield from his oyster planting, which almost never happened, then he might get between $25,000 to $28,000 in return which was eaten up in labor costs and other expenses.

But with the native oyster failing right now, watermen had no choice but plant themselves.

“You’ve got to plant it,” Robert Brown said. “Because with them you’ve got no natural recruitment.”

State officials with Department of National Resources did not return calls for comment.

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