Oyster season began last Thursday, October 1, in Maryland. While a lot of oyster production in the Chesapeake Bay now takes place in cages with specially manufactured disease-resistant oysters, there are still watermen who dredge and dive from natural oyster reefs in the Bay. Watermen typically use hand and patent tonging to bring up oysters.
(For a visual on this process, check out this youtube video of Chesapeake watermen oyster tonging on the water. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRWGHgbCbHQ).
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently estimated that oyster harvests from tonging and diving will not be as high this year as in the past couple of years. According to DelmarvaNow, Maryland watermen hauled in 393,000 bushels of oysters last year, bringing in $17.3 million. This year’s harvest will likely be lower. The reason for the estimate of lower harvest levels this upcoming season is a decline in reproduction of oysters from 2013-2014. There are 1-2 years lag time between reproduction levels and harvest level responses, given the time it takes for oysters to mature. Reproduction levels were high in 2010-2012, contributing to high harvest levels the past two years.
However, despite recent storms keeping watermen off the water for a few days, good harvests are being reported so far, with bushel limits being reached every day, according to the Star Democrat, a newspaper produced in Easton, Maryland.
Tonging and diving for oysters can only take place at certain reefs in Maryland. The various restoration sites and oyster sanctuaries, overseen by organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (see map of CBF oyster reef sites here), are off limits to watermen. Even oyster reserve areas, which the DNR wanted to open to harvest, are off limits, after the Chesapeake Legal Alliance challenged the DNR’s proposal to open 10 reserve sites earlier this year.
Power- and sail-dredging for oysters will begin in November, and the oyster season will continue until March 31 of next year.