ROCK HALL — “So far it looks like a good season,” Chuckie White said Friday, Oct. 4. “So far all I’ve heard is good news.” After a poor crab season, working watermen are relieved to find plenty of oysters.
There have been no reports of dead or dying oysters, and prices are up because the Gulf Coast fishery is still crippled after the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in April 2010.
White is the president of the Kent County Watermen’s Association. Working out of Rock Hall, he estimated, there are “10 or 12 boats, might be as many as 15 or 20 ... a few are still crabbing.”
He said the recent crab season was a bad one and almost all the watermen have turned to catching oysters.
White said Eastern Bay is popular right now with local watermen fishing with hand tongs or patent tongs. “Diving looks pretty good” there too, he said.
“The divers are working where the power dredgers have been, that’s where the oysters are in Eastern Bay,” White said. “Every year more and more oysters show up on the bars they’ve been dredging.”
Dredgers aren’t permitted to start until Nov. 1.
Warming to a topic that comes up every year when the General Assembly meets, White said he can’t understand why the upper bay is closed to power dredging when it appears that cleaning mud off the oyster beds elsewhere had improved the yield.
Storm-driven sediment has buried the traditional bars in the upper bay, he said. They were mapped about a century ago. “The bars are still there but they’re buried in mud.”
He said the state oyster sanctuaries, where oyster fishing is banned, have cut down the bottom watermen can work by 25 percent.
“They say they want to get oysters that are disease-resistant,” he said. “But older oysters are weaker, their own scientist said.”
Contacted the same day, Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, said he will “definitely be putting in another bill” to allow upper bay dredging when the legislative session begins in January.
Jacobs has taken a lead role in working to expand what he calls “a heritage industry.”
He believes dredging once-productive muddy bars is key. Jacobs said, “There’s 28,500 acres of oyster bottom above the bay bridge. We had two three-hour meetings with the Department of Natural Resources earlier this summer. They were unwilling to negotiate,” having offered to open 300 acres over three years.
Legislation would set out the conditions, removing the final word from the DNR’s regulators.
“The DNR doesn’t have a plan and doesn’t have any funding. But we’re trying to create a future crop” by involving watermen, Jacobs said. In exchange for cultivating certain acreage, they would plant other areas.
Jacobs, who formed the Commercial Watermen’s Caucus, plans to schedule its meetings “every Monday night for the first six weeks of the session, and give both sides an opportunity to hear a conversation on regulations, especially the upper bay issue in regard to dredging.” He said it has been effective at educating legislators in the past.
An oyster dinner early in the session “will bring all 188 of them out,” he quipped.
The caucus addresses all matters relating to commercial fishermen, among them regulations affecting those who go after rockfish, oysters, or crabs.