A pile of oyster shells at the Oyster Festival in Leonardtown. (somd.com file photo)
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 28, 2016)—The 2016-2017 public oyster harvest season kicks off Oct. 1 and runs through March 31. The opening month is reserved for divers and watermen using shaft and patent tongs.
"Although blue crabs are fat and plentiful this time of year, it is oysters on the half shell that traditionally bring Marylanders together in the fall and winter months," said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton. "The species is as iconic as the Chesapeake Bay with deep ties to our culture and heritage. Oysters continue to play an important role in both our ecology and economy."
Last season, 1,146 licensed Maryland watermen harvested 383,090 bushels of oysters with a dockside value of $14.9 million. This was a slight decline from the prior season of 393,588 bushels, which was the second highest in 15 years primarily due to good oyster reproduction in 2010 and 2012 and strong survival rates.
The department's 2015 Fall Oyster Survey showed a relative low spat set with mixed recruitment success, which may indicate an average-to-declining oyster harvest this season. Maryland's oyster population still has far to go before being considered recovered.
To protect this species from poachers, who harm both ongoing restoration efforts as well as oystermen, Maryland Natural Resources Police will deploy water patrols, conduct aerial and radar surveillance, and inspect wholesale and retail establishments. District court judges with special training and experience will hear the cases.
Last year, officers wrote 211 citations for oyster violations, ranging from harvesting undersized oysters to poaching from protected sanctuaries.
The busiest portion of the oyster season will kick off Nov. 1, when harvest methods expand to include sail dredging and power dredging in designated areas of Calvert, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary's, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
Watermen may work Monday through Friday from sunrise to 3 p.m. in October and January through March, and from sunrise to sunset in November and December. The minimum harvest size is three-inches. The daily limit is 15 bushels per person, not to exceed 30 bushels per boat.