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Some Watermen Quit After Massive Oyster Die-Off

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A massive die-off of oysters in the Chesapeake is placing livelihoods on the brink.

Alex DeMetrick reports some watermen are already calling it quits.

Every oyster season will turn up empty shells and dead oysters, but this year was worse than normal.

"Some of the bars were 100  percent dead. We didn't find a live oyster at all," said waterman Barry Sweitzer.

Watermen say the Chesapeake north of the bay has become an oyster graveyard. They blame the massive runoff from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which brought debris and a flood of fresh water, which kills oysters.

"We can't oyster through this. This has really hit us hard," said waterman Richard Manly.

"The hurricane's gone from most people's memories but if you work the bay, you're dealing with it every day," said waterman Greg Jetton.

Sweitzer is dealing with it by getting out. He'll place one of Maryland's last working skipjacks for sale, a boat that's supported his family for 64 years.

"I don't have any other choice. Logistically, I can't work the lower bay; it's just too far away," he said.

Because oysters reproduce best in saltier water, the northern bay will take years to recover.

"If you get a good spawn once every five years in the upper bay, you're doing pretty good," said Erik Zlokovitz, DNR Fisheries.

"The worst part for me with this boat, it's not the money you make off of it, it's the opportunity to go out there and watch the sun come up and actually do the job and that's what's heartbreaking to me. That breaks my heart," Sweitzer said.

Although watermen believe tropical weather triggered the oyster die-off, state scientists have yet to determine an exact cause.

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