With several hours of daylight to spare, Ronnie Robbins and his son, Jason, had already docked their 36-foot deadrise workboat on Hooper’s Island and started unloading their briny cargo.
Into the bed of a waiting pickup went 20 bushels of oysters dredged from the bottom of the Honga River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Once again, they’d handily harvested all they were allowed by the state to take in a day.
“It’s better than it’s been in years before, that’s for sure,” the elder Robbins said.
Even so, he and others who make a living off the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters have been struggling this fall and winter.
It isn’t a supply problem. Watermen in Maryland and Virginia alike say they are having no trouble landing their daily wild oyster quotas. Oyster farmers in both states also say they’ve raised bumper crops of the bivalves in leased patches of the Bay and its tributaries.
“We got lots of oysters, and they’re excellent quality,” said Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, representing Maryland crab and oyster processors. “I’ve bought two bushels this fall, and I’ve never seen oysters this fat.”
The problem is decreased demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The wild oyster harvest ended abruptly a couple of weeks before the official March 31 close of the 2019–20 season, as the first wave of COVID-19 hit and seafood wholesalers stopped buying watermen’s catches. Oyster farmers, likewise, saw their markets practically vanish overnight, with restaurants shut down and people being urged to stay home to slow the spread of the disease.
Aquaculture-raised oyster sales picked up a little in late spring and summer, as restaurants reopened on a limited basis. But demand remained soft and decreased further when the 2020–21 wild harvest season opened Oct. 1, flooding the markets with even more bivalves. A wild-caught bushel that had fetched $50 dockside in the fall of 2019 got only $30 this year.
Then COVID-19 cases surged again, bringing renewed restrictions on dining at restaurants. Demand plummeted once more for both shucked and half-shell oysters.
“Come Oct. 1, the bottom just fell out of the market,” said Fred Tull, who raises oysters on 10 acres in the Little Annemessex River by Crisfield, MD. In mid-December, when holiday demand for shellfish is usually strong, he said, “I’ve got oysters to sell and no market.”
At Mobjack Bay Seafood, a family-run wholesaler in Ware Neck, VA, sales are down as much as 70% this season, owner John Vigliotta…