Ask waterman Jim Mullin his predictions for this oyster season, and you'll hear the word "guarded" more than once.

"It's guarded optimism or guarded pessimism, I guess," said Mullin, president of the Maryland Oystermen's Association. "It's all in Mother Nature's hands."

This season, though, the guarded expectations among watermen and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are for a smaller oyster harvest. And it comes down to the production of young oysters, or spat.

"We haven't had a good spat set in recent years, and when a spat set declines, harvests decline a couple years after that," said Chris Judy, assistant director of the shellfish division for the DNR's Fisheries Service.

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