EASTON - Oyster season officially ends with the arrival of April 1, which is the start of blue crab season in Maryland.
Many called this oyster season a success.
"Harvest data suggests that harvest in this oyster season will more than double the 2011-12 season," said Mike Naylor, assistant director for the fisheries service and shellfish program director at the Department of Natural Resources. "(But) we are still at a very small fraction of the harvest just 30 years ago."
Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association, said the current weather is too cold to catch crabs.
Instead of heading straight to crabbing, Chance, who said April is usually the slow month for watermen, is going to focus his efforts on a shell restoration program.
Last year, Chance said watermen took their own money, which came from license fees, bushel taxes and money from the Maryland Department of Transportation, and used it for a shell restoration program to move clean shells onto oyster bars under a permit obtained from DNR.
But Naylor said the watermen might not get the permit this year, despite Chance's efforts to push the program along.
"We do not have any new areas identified that could be sources of shell," Naylor said. "There's some real barriers before we can do that."
Plus, Naylor said there needs to be a bid put out there to do the work, so the watermen might not get the bid anyway, though Chance said the state watermen's association has $2.4 million set aside for the work.
Chance said even if the restoration work were to happen, there is a shortage of shells on the market with which to do the restoration.
"The state has already taken a large percentage of the shells that are available. They're using them for their sanctuaries," Chance said.
Essentially, Naylor said that was true.
Naylor said DNR has been buying shells for a very long time, and has about 250,000 bushels of shells stored at various locations, and they're used to keep the University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory's restoration work operational.
He said the 250,000 shells are enough to keep Horn Point running for about two years, but DNR actually experienced a shortage of shells this year, too, as it was not able to buy any more.
But Chance said when you figure in the 90 percent mortality rate of oysters when nearing maturity, the restoration work at Horn Point is a less-than-desirable use of taxpayer money.
Overall, what both watermen and DNR are doing is trying to make the oyster industry sustainable. But they don't always see eye-to-eye on how to go about it.
"All of our harvesting is not about taking, it's about sustainability," Chance said. "If anybody has an interest in sustainability of a resource, it's the watermen who make a living and feed our family with that resource. We feel like it's time we work together with mother nature's plan instead of just throwing money at it."
Chance said two years ago the state took away most of the good bottom watermen in the area harvested on, including Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River, and turned the bottom into oyster sanctuaries, forbidding watermen from harvesting at those locations.
He said the oysters sitting in those sanctuaries have a greater chance of developing disease and killing off more oysters. Plus, sediment develops on the shells, which inhibits reproduction, he said.
As for the disease aspect, Naylor said Chance was right, as that is how sanctuaries work.
"What needs to happen is oysters need to develop resistance to disease. In the sanctuary, when they get big, some oysters are going to survive. Over time, the most resistant oysters survive, and you develop disease resistance," Naylor said. "They're (watermen) thinking we should harvest them before they die. If resistance does develop, it's going to be beneficial to everyone, including the watermen."
Naylor said that type of disease-resistant oyster concept has never really happened before in Maryland.
Chance said he gets discouraged with DNR sometimes.
"Often times, it feels like the department has its own agenda that doesn't always take into consideration the viewpoint of those whose lives depend on the sustainability of the resource," Chance said.
He said DNR will give watermen "ear-time" to listen to proposed plans for the Bay and restoration, but the ideas are seldom used.
"True, we don't always agree with everything they don't like to do, but everything we do is working toward sustainability," Naylor said.