A shell of a harvest

Oyster dressing, oyster stew, oyster pie, oysters Rockefeller, oysters on the half-shell, fried oysters, scalloped oysters, smoked oysters, oyster shooters.

Before anyone gets too carried away with the latest news about the Chesapeake Bay's oyster harvest this season and plans a lifetime of gluttony — much as Bubba Blue, Forrest Gump's Army pal, so enthusiastically recalled shrimp recipes — some caution is in order.

The good news is that the oyster harvest is up — spectacularly, by modern standards. Since the Maryland season for oysters opened Oct. 1, watermen report that they are bringing in two to three times as many oysters as they did last season.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources confirms that last season's 135,000-bushel harvest is likely to double. Already, it's caused hundreds of people to temporarily join the ranks of the oystermen who dredge the Chesapeake Bay.

According to DNR records, the total number of people licensed to harvest oysters is now about 800, or twice what it's been in years past. That means a lot of carpenters, house painters, landscapers and others are likely putting down their tools and heading out on the water — and were willing to pay $300 for a license to do so.

The bonanza has already had an effect on the local oyster market. Wholesale prices that ran as high as $40 per bushel last year are now reported to be about $22 and may go lower. Some fret that the few remaining Maryland oyster packing houses, often open only a few days a week, don't have the capacity to buy and shuck so many.

Could this signal a return to the oyster bounty of years past? This is where a dose of cold water, rather than a splash of Tabasco and lemon, is in order. DNR officials say it's probably a one-year fluke. Why? Because they've seen it all before.

In 1999, Maryland's harvest tripled in similar fashion because of an unusually high spat set two years earlier. It appears unusual weather deserved the credit — lower rainfall in the spring and summer of 1997 meant higher salinity in the bay and reduced the incidence of Dermo, the protozoan parasite that is deadly to oysters but completely harmless to humans.

Once the oysters born in 1997 and grown to maturity by 1999 were caught and sold, Maryland's oyster harvest numbers went back down. That's likely to happen again thanks to the 2010 spat set, which was remarkably similar to the 1997 experience.

That's not guaranteed, of course. Environmental factors could play a role again, but it's telling that the oyster rebound has been seen entirely south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where the water is saltier, and not farther north or upstream in the rivers.

The state of the oyster industry remains a concern. Maryland's decision to set aside about one-quarter of the Chesapeake Bay's oyster grounds was prudent, and time will tell if that conservation measure has proven helpful. If oysters in those areas thrive far more than those in areas that watermen still harvest, it may be time to consider an outright moratorium.

A study conducted last year suggested that while disease and habitat degradation have been the leading culprit for the decline of oysters (a harvest that once measured in the millions of bushels), fishing pressure likely has compounded the problem. Thus, this year's temporary abundance may actually mask the cold, hard reality of the perilous condition of wild oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.

For consumers, the best hope may lie in the farming of oysters. That form of aquaculture currently enjoys only a modest presence in the bay, but the farm-to-table restaurant movement is creating unique opportunities. DNR officials say they have at least 150 applications from people who wish to start oyster farms in Maryland. One reason is that such oysters, often raised in leased beds in bags or cages, are sold primarily for the half-shell market at prices five to eight times greater than oysters that are shucked and sold by the quart.

In the meantime, consumers should enjoy this year's oyster crop guilt-free. Such abundance may not appear again soon.

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