On Monday, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources released an update to the 2018 oyster stock assessment that showed the number of market-size oysters (larger than three inches) in 2020 was about 400 million, compared to approximately 300 million in 2018.
The increase in the market-size oyster population reflects the growth of the above average number of juvenile oysters and spat that were in the Bay in 2016 and 2017.
However, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is concerned the increase in market-size oysters may be temporary because the estimated number of oysters less than one year old is the sixth lowest recorded since 1999—about 275 million oysters.
Changes made last year by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to control fishing effort —decreasing bushel limits and eliminating a day from watermen’s workweek—did not reduce the number of oysters harvested. Watermen harvested about 270,000 bushels of oysters in the 2019-2020 season compared to 137,000 bushels in a rain-soaked 2018-2019 season. In fact, at certain points in the 2019-2020 season, the harvest outpaced market demand leading to seafood dealers not buying oysters, according to DNR.
DNR is scheduled to announce any changes to oyster fishery regulations on July 1, which is also when it plans to release the full report on the oyster stock assessment update.
In response to the stock assessment update, CBF’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden issued the following statement:
“While watermen enjoyed a robust harvest this past season, the below average numbers of spat recorded in the new assessment suggest that harvest increases are not permanent. The reality remains that oysters in the Bay are at perilously low levels compared to historic populations.
“We’re encouraged by DNR’s work to update the oyster stock assessment with new data. The stock assessment update provides critical insights to inform the responsible management of Maryland’s oyster fishery. We urge DNR to carefully weigh options for the 2020-2021 harvest season given these findings.
“The state must carefully balance the economic desire to harvest more oysters with the environmental benefit that oysters provide thanks to their natural ability to filter water and create habitat.”