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Analysts urge small oyster harvest

By DANIEL WALSH Staff Writer, (856) 794-5111
Press of Atlantic City

This year's oyster harvest could be one of the smallest in 50 years.

The New Jersey Shell Fisheries Council on Monday recommended collecting 35,000 bushels of oysters from the Delaware Bay this year, about half the 2004 harvest, and the number could drop even lower.

An outside group of analysts recommended harvesting only 1 percent of the oyster population, about 26,000 bushels.

Council members think the bay can comfortably yield more oysters and hiked the number to a 1.4 percent figure used in the past. State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell has the final say.

"I think it's going to help the industry, and I don't think it's going to hurt the resource," Steve Fleetwood, a council member who runs Bivalve Packing, said of the council's change to the total allocation.

"You've got this vast area of oysters and to say you can catch only 26,000, that's not a lot of oysters."

Over the past five years, oyster "recruitment" has consistently gone down. Historically, oystermen would take seed oysters from seed beds and move them down the bay to areas of higher salinity where they can grow to market size.

Today, many independent oystermen simply take small oysters straight from beds in the upper Delaware Bay, a practice that began in 1996 as a one-year trial but has continued nonetheless. Many grew accustomed to years of diseased oyster populations after MSX wiped out oysters in the 1950s and Dermo hit the population in the 1990s. Biologist Walt Canzonier says most independent oysterers aren't being innovative enough in oyster recruitment, the practice of moving oysters to different parts of the bay where they can grow better.

In contrast, some of the few established companies harvesting oysters have improved their fortunes due to better business practices, Canzonier said. Shellpile-based King's seafood reorganized its operations over the last few years and improved financially. Bivalve Packing, one of the most well-known seafood companies along the Delaware Bay, still moves its oysters from the seed beds to other areas where they grow better.

All told, oysterers harvested more than 60,000 bushels of oysters last year.

"The industry probably came out in the black (in 2004), because the price of oysters was so high," said Canzonier, who has studied Delaware Bay shellfish and the industry for more than 40 years.

Oyster-harvesting season begins in April. Last year, the total allotment of 60,000 oysters meant each oyster boat could harvest as many as 1,000 bushels. This year, that will be about 400 bushels per boat.
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