A soft, early spring rain falling this morning. Tree buds swelling and reddening with periods of longer light as the vernal equinox nears. Bald eagles nesting, winter’s Canada geese leaving, ospreys returning, the season changing.
Watermen head out Bozman’s Grace Creek in the morning’s first light, past crows squawking invisibly in tall pines perpendicular along the flat shoreline.
Many of the watermen head for Broad Creek, just outside and east of Grace. Many of them harvesting oysters with long-shafted, basket-ended tongs. Many doing this two, three, four, five days a week since the ‘20-’21 Maryland oyster season started October 1.
But that season is coming to an end. March 31 is the last day. On April 1, the 2021 crabbing season begins.
“It’s been a decent season,” said one waterman working on his boat at the town dock on the backside of St. Michaels. “Market and prices haven’t been good but there’s plenty of oysters. We’re still getting our limit by 10:30. No problem. That’s two of us, hand tonging out in Broad Creek, twelve bushels per man.”
A universal lament this season. Back in scuzzy February when most of the short-month’s weeks saw only two days of budget-squeezing market, Bozman oyster broker P.T. Hambleton called it a perfect storm. “More oysters than most have ever seen, and less market.”
The St. Michaels waterman talked about the abundance.
“You can’t believe the little oysters – the spat – on the shells of the bigger oysters. Eighteen hundred spat in a bushel of oysters from the Broad Creek bars. There’s enough oysters out there to carry us for at least another five years. Over in Harris Creek, the oyster sanctuary, there’s only 200 spat per bushel. They’re getting silted over.”
Motoring away from the dock, I reflected on what he told me, the implication being that oysters in Harris Creek – the state’s largest oyster sanctuary – are silting over because they aren’t being worked.
Cultivation. Without it conditions aren’t as good for the strong spat sets he’s seeing in Broad Creek. In his mind that’s contrary to what the state intends for oyster sanctuaries: Generation of lots of baby oysters by keeping those historically productive bars off limits to commercial harvesting.
That doesn’t sit well with people who make their living off the water. The centuries-old tension. Short-term vs. long term. The man vs. the state. The constant push and pull, as predictable and steady as the tides.
Out in Broad Creek a few days earlier, during last week’s warm spell, we came across a dozen or so tongers working the bars. In one of the boats, James Kettering scissored his tongs over the bottom, Paul Allen at the culling board. Allen hammered clumps apart, separating market-size oysters from smalls, tossing those and spat-speckled empty shells back overboard.
Like many tongers, Kettering uses an engine-powered winder to help hoist his catch off the bottom. “If they had some kind of machine to help me scrape these tongs back and forth over the bottom, I’d use that too,” said Kettering. “I’m fifty years old. Been doing this a long time. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Allen kept culling, trying to stay ahead of Kettering’s steady efforts to keep the culling board full.
Another boat over, Jordan Graves worked by himself. He had set his tongs aside and taken up his culling hammer to tame the mounting pile on his board.
Younger by a generation or so than Kettering, Graves said he grew up near Annapolis, worked construction. “Then I married a Tilghman Island girl – Jessica Hood. We moved back to Tilghman. We both like it here. I started working the water and I came to love it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Now I’m looking to get a bigger boat – a Kinnamon.”
As we parted, and cruised slowly through the fleet, many of the watermen had already pulled their anchors, their limits of heavy oysters lowering their water lines.
They started retracing their early morning’s course, culling continuing, returning to the docks to sell their catch, wondering how many more days of market there would be – how much more oystering – before the season ends.
Dennis Forney grew up on the Chester River in Chestertown. After graduating Oberlin College, he returned to the Shore where he wrote for the Queen Anne’s Record Observer, the Bay Times, the Star Democrat, and the Watermen’s Gazette. He moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1975 with his wife Becky where they lived for 45 years, raising their family and enjoying the saltwater life. Forney and Trish Vernon founded the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper serving eastern Sussex County, in 1993, where he served as publisher until 2020. He continues to write for the Cape Gazette as publisher emeritus and expanded his Delmarva footprint in 2020 with a move to Bozman in Talbot County.