As the holidays approach, many of us will be looking forward to enjoying local oysters as part of the celebration. How do they get from the sea to the table? Our waterman.
Getting those wild oysters to the table is getting harder and harder. Since 2010, regulations and sanctuaries have limited the available areas for waterman to work.
Across the bay, a quarter of the remaining available oyster habitats are sanctuaries. Many of those locations have traditionally been worked by watermen.
While working new areas, harvesting from under-worked areas requires years of dredging oysters and replenishing shells, which oysters latch onto and grow from, for bars to become consistently lucrative.
Some waterman complain that yields are much lower because of new regulations that force them to locations that are more crowded with other fishermen—this leads to overfishing certain areas, and eventual depletion of the resource.
In Maryland, the DNR estimated that regulations meant protect oyster populations could cause watermen’s harvest to decrease by about 10 percent, a drop that will have a big effect on their income.
Some suspect the regulations are intended not so much to save the oyster, but to drive out independent waterman in favor of commercial aquaculture.
Smaller, local watermen complain that for a small operation, the aquaculture business is not as profitable as traditional harvesting—it also puts a financial burden on watermen who can’t afford to take that kind of risk.
Most watermen agree that oyster restoration is important, but sanctuaries may not be the best method. Power dredging, a mechanical method of scraping the bottom of the bay, could help the oyster population more than the sanctuaries because it helps to create a cleaner surface for oyster larvae to grow on.
The Chesapeake Bay is 4,479 mi². Limiting oyster harvests to such small areas and small amounts of time does not seem like a sustainable way to not only manage the resource, but allow folks to work the water and make a living.
If we want to continue to have wild oysters on the table, it may be time to truly bring waterman to the table as a way to find a sustainable way to manage the resource for everyone.