TILGHMAN, Md. — A spring morning's first light greets a fatigued, worn-out fleet of whitewashed boats sailing from this and other ports along Maryland's Eastern Shore and on into the placid, blue Chesapeake Bay.
In no particular order, the box-topped, narrow vessels search out the ancient oyster beds that dot this sprawling estuary and its tributaries. With luck, the crews of one, sometimes two, find a productive spot to anchor.
Played out from early November's quickening chill until the brisk, clear days of late March, the ritual is reassuring. Here, in one of the nation's environmental treasures, this seafood harvest is framed by quiet fishing villages, stately tree-lined shores and a wide horizon broken only by flocks of water fowl.
Then, at day's end, wooden bushels brimming with shellfish are unloaded at dockside packing houses for shipment nationwide.
Yet, the panorama is deceptive, for under the water's surface an ecological torrent threatens the bay's fragile species.
At greatest risk is the prized Chesapeake Bay oyster, whose precarious status seems only to deteriorate. The evidence comes in sharp declines in the annual harvests over the last decade. In fact, the recently concluded 1986-1987 season is believed to be the worst in this century.
Precipitating the downturn is a web of naturally occurring bacterial infections, severe weather patterns, pollution and the controversial specter of overfishing.
The situation is being described as a "crash" and presents serious problems for Maryland's economy. For decades, the state had counted the oyster industry as its most valuable fishery, in terms of overall dollars. Now, it appears that reve-nue from blue crabs will exceed that of the brackish-tasting mollusks for the first time since records have been kept.
This year's oyster landings, even though depressed, are estimated to be in excess of $18 million at dockside, according to Pete Jensen, the state's director of fisheries. However, the Chesapeake oyster's total value to Maryland is said to exceed $60 million when processing, packing and wholesale activities are included, he said.
The oysters' gradual disappearance is not just a matter for local concern. Developments have been felt throughout U.S. seafood markets because Maryland is second only to Louisiana in total production. The Chesapeake's marked decline, coupled with the emergence of surprisingly similar problems in the Gulf States, have caused retail oyster prices to soar.
No one here needs a marine biologist or government analyst to realize that the fishery is in trouble. Simple numbers tell the story: Estimates of Maryland's current harvest are at about 900,000 bushels (roughly 60 pounds per bushel) compared with more than 2.3 million in 1978-1979 and 1.5 million in 1985-1986.
Hints that something was amiss in the bay have appeared for years. Historical records indicate that in 1884, for instance, the Chesapeake Bay oyster harvest was reported as high as 15 million bushels.
Even more worrisome is that this year's meager season occurred despite an increasingly sophisticated effort by as many as 3,500 licensed oystermen. Maryland permits four tightly regulated harvesting methods that are monitored for abuses by an active marine police force.
At the height of the season divers crawl the bay's floor filling bushels by hand; tongers in the box boats use 12-foot-long, scissor-like poles to scrape the bottom and more-mechanized patent tongers work hydraulic lifts to rake the bay with a claw-like cage.
These three methods are complemented by the most picturesque of all, namely, the elegant, old sailing ships, called skipjacks, which have plyed the bay for a century. These boats dredge while under sail by tossing overboard several metal cages in succession. Each is dragged along the bay until full and then hoisted on board for sorting. Until recently, Eastern Shore natives gave little thought to the seasonal harmony that found the fishing boats out in fall and winter harvesting oysters followed by a spring and summer spent catching crabs. But the current crash has forced those in the industry to contemplate the serious economic changes that threaten the area, which is dependent on the bay for survival.
"Without a living, producing Chesapeake Bay, Maryland is nothing," said restaurateur Buddy Harrison. The words were chosen carefully, as if in appreciation of the waterfront vista just outside Harrison's Chesapeake House, an inn and restaurant complex he owns and operates here.
A continuing decline, Harrison said, would not be restricted to the fishing industry. The effect would eventually stifle the booming local real estate market and, ultimately, deter the waves of tourists, who descend each summer upon this portion of the Eastern Shore, a 2 1/2-hour drive from Washington.