DEAL ISLAND -- Oyster prices fell Monday and could drop again next week as out-of-state oysters flood the market, which could prompt federal legislation to level the playing field.
Watermen across the Chesapeake Bay went on a three-day strike last week after buyers dropped the price of oysters from $40 to $35 per bushel. The strike ended Thursday after buyers agreed not to cut prices again before the holidays.
But the price did drop again Monday.
Danny Webster, a Deal Island waterman since 1977, said he negotiated with Harbor House of Seaford, Del., one of the largest packing houses that buys oysters from local watermen.
"They said they didn't think they would drop prices and I took that to mean before Thanksgiving," he said. "I assumed, and you know what that stands for."
Mark Bryan, co-owner of Harbor House, could not be reached Monday or Tuesday. But a buyer for Harris Seafood in Grasonville said Tuesday they paid $38 per bushel that day.
Brent Haddaway of Easton, a third-generation waterman, said the strike didn't do a bit of good and cost him $1,400.
"We went back last Thursday and they cut them again," he said. "If they get much cheaper, we'll have to quit."
Buyers say the watermen need to compete; watermen say they can't. Gov. Martin O'Malley's oyster restoration plan increased sanctuaries from 9 to 25 percent of the remaining good oyster bottom, which meant about a 5,000-acre reduction in harvest area, according to the Talbot County Watermen's Association.
Watermen are squeezed into smaller areas, mainly around Deal Island, have costs of about $100 per day, and struggle to catch their limit of 12 bushels before 3 p.m., the state-mandated quitting time.
But it's the out-of-state oysters, Haddaway said, that are messing up the market. Oysters from Texas, the Carolinas and Virginia are as cheap as $20 per bushel.
"They're small, they're young and they're poor and nobody wants them, but they flood the market," Haddaway said. "They buy cheap oysters and the state lets them put them in a Maryland can and it really puts us to where we don't make enough money to make it worthwhile to go to work."
Some say it only takes three oysters per can for a Maryland label, other say it's 10 percent. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources could not provide the labeling requirements Tuesday.
Haddaway said the state could fix the problem by taxing oysters coming into Maryland to bring those costs in line with that of Bay oysters.
"Make them as high as ours, its a simple fix and a money maker for the state," he said.
State Sen. Richard Colburn said Monday he intends to consider legislation in the 2011 session to do just that. He plans to talk with both buyers and watermen about a tax that would make prices identical or higher than that of local oysters.
In the meantime, local watermen anticipate more price reductions and say catches will drop 50 percent in the upcoming month. And although what the watermen get paid per bushel drops, the price for consumers is fairly stable and offers a heavy profit, particularly on the western shore, where oysters can fetch $150 per bushel.
"There's nothing we can do," said Webster. "Oysters are not like last year, then with the market prices, its a double whammy. It's frustrating."