ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — The market-size oyster population in Maryland rose slightly over the past year, and spat estimates increased to the highest level in the previous 20 years, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2021 Oyster Stock Assessment Update released Tuesday.

The increases in market-size oysters – those above 3 inches – and spat – or juvenile oysters – were greatest in the Choptank River, which has undergone significant oyster restoration efforts, according to a Chesapeake Bay Foundation statement.  Tangier Sound also saw significant increases in both of market-size oysters and spat.

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But even with this recent population growth, areas of the Choptank and Tangier Sound are experiencing overfishing, according to the statement. As the state’s oyster population has increased, so has the number of commercial oyster licenses. License surcharges have increased from 822 in 2018 to 1,239 in 2020, according to DNR data.

At the meeting, DNR proposed keeping the 2020-2021 bushel limits in place, while enabling watermen to harvest oysters five days a week, which would increase the harvest week by one day.

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DNR previously restricted commercial oyster harvesting on Wednesdays to try to reduce overfishing. The overall harvest increased annually despite DNR changing regulations before the 2019-2020 oyster season—from 145,332 bushels in 2018-2019 to 332,946 bushels in 2020-2021.

DNR estimated this year there were about 100 spat per bushel of oysters, which is lower than the recorded high of 276 spat per bushel in 1997. That year’s spat set helped the market-size oyster population increase in 1999 to the highest levels recorded in the period covered by the stock assessment. However, due to a disease outbreak oyster populations quickly declined and reached record lows by 2003. Oyster population levels in Maryland remain at historically low levels.

Allison Colden, the CBF’s Maryland fisheries scientist, said the news about the spat was encouraging, but overfishing still could pose a threat.

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“It’s encouraging to see the highest spatfall since 1999. These periodic high spatfall events provide managers with a tremendous opportunity to continue to grow Maryland’s oyster population if managed prudently,” she said. “However, certain areas of the bay are experiencing chronic overfishing that threatens the persistence of oysters in those areas. One good year of spat set won’t resolve this problem, especially if the number of oyster harvesters continues to increase. DNR must adopt regulations that will address overfishing and protect this year’s spat so they can grow, reproduce, and build new reef habitat.”

CBS Baltimore Staff