Facing the state’s worst oyster harvest on record, Maryland enacted an emergency regulation in late January allowing watermen to use power dredging to harvest oysters in certain Chesapeake tributaries.

The action drew fire from some for increasing harvest pressure at a time when the population was at an all-time low due to disease. But a state official said the oyster situation was so bleak that fewer than expected watermen were taking advantage of the new regulation.

“It wasn’t a huge massive fleet that some people envisioned,” said Chris Judy, who oversees the Department of Natural Resources Shellfish Division. “The oyster population is sparse. It’s a lot of hard work. Many boats have gone home.”

Through early February, the state’s oyster harvest stood at about 38,000 bushels. Judy said he expected about 5,000 additional bushels to come from the areas opened to power dredging, and he predicted a total state harvest of around 45,000 bushels when the season closes March 31.

That is well below the previous worst season of 1993-94, when 79,000 bushels were harvested. Last year, the harvest was 148,000 bushels.

For the most part, Maryland’s watermen are not permitted to dredge for oysters because it’s too efficient for a population that’s already so low. Instead, they mostly use an antiquated contraption: hand-operated tongs, a long scissor-like tool with metal rakes on the ends. Some of the exceptions where dredging is allowed includes areas where the water is too deep for tonging.

The emergency regulations opened five new locations for dredging, including the area around the Honga River in Dorchester County; Fishing Bay in Dorchester, Somerset and Wicomico Counties; St. Mary's River, which is off the Potomac River in St. Mary's County; Pocomoke Sound within Somerset County; and parts of the Choptank River in Talbot County.

Because dredging dramatically increases harvest efficiency and has the potential to destroy bottom habitat, “it is a potential problem if it were to get out of hand,” said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

But he said some areas, especially those with high reproduction but also high disease mortality, may be suited for dredging. He also said that in some cases, dredging might improve bottom habitat by cleaning oyster bars.

Goldsborough said that when some areas were first opened to the more effective harvest technique three years ago, it happened through legislation that also set aside other areas as oyster sanctuaries.

That didn’t happen with the emergency regulations this year. Goldsborough said scientists, recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen and lawmakers have been discussing the potential for new legislation which may permanently open suitable additional areas to dredging, but also further expand sanctuaries.

“In the long run, efficient harvesting may have a place if we are able to concurrently establish this network of sanctuaries,” he said. “But we’re going in the wrong direction if all we do is clean up some of the few remaining oysters.”

Regardless, Judy warned that harvests in the Bay look bleak for the next several years. Not only have several years of drought allowed higher salinities, which bring more disease, but reproduction has been poor since 1997, so there are few young oysters to replace the dying adults.

“For any kind of recovery to occur, the starting point is going to have to be with a tremendous spat set this summer,” he said. “Then it is going to be three to four years out before you see that population grow up. So we are in a waiting mode.”