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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Oystering: A hard life in hard times

Skipjack restrictions, bay restoration efforts take their toll on watermen
By Kim Mitchell

DEAL ISLAND -- Decades ago, more than a thousand skipjacks dotted the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Today, only three venture out from the Eastern Shore.

Most return with little to show for their hours of hard work.

Their crews wake up between 3:30 and 5 a.m., their workday wake-up call, even if they don't go out on the water.

"It's habit," said Walt Benton, a skipjack captain.

Factors that dictate whether to disembark each morning are about the same for every boat. If the weather is good, with sunny skies and little wind, they'll head out. It's a hard enough job as it is without adding extra risks, they say.

"It doesn't take much to keep you in when oysters are scarce," said Terry Daniels Sr., waterman.

They may get one day of work a week with the way the winds have blown this winter.

Even when the skies are clear and the winds and water are calm, there are no guarantees for good returns.

"We know where the spots are," Benton said. "There are some good, some bad. But you've got to try, you never know. You may not get any, but you know where not to go next time."

When the government saw hundreds of skipjacks taking their fill daily, a law was introduced in 1965 limiting the skipjacks to only two days of powered dredging.

Even though watermen say there are only about five operational skipjacks, the two-day law remains in effect. And, with only two days, the watermen don't like to waste them.

They can go out more days using sails, but said it's not worth the effort.

"It's barely worth going out there on power," said Delmas Benton, a skipjack captain.

"You can't keep a skipjack working on two days a week," Webster said. "The math is not there."

A skipjack brings in about 30 bushels of oyster a day, the average the last couple of years. And even with a decreased supply, it doesn't necessarily mean demand drives up the price.

The crews get about $32 per bushel. With a six-man crew, gasoline, maintenance work and other expenses, the men are lucky if they earn $130 a day.

The skipjack runs on two motors -- a push motor to move the boat and a winder to run the dredge. Delmas Benton said the two consume between 40 gallons and 50 gallons of fuel in a day of work. At $3 a gallon, they spend at least $120 for gasoline.

Just to remove the boat from water and have it painted costs $2,500, while a single dredging cable costs $1,000.

It costs between $5,000 and $10,000 a year to keep the boat up, Delmas Benton said.

"You better have a wife who works," Walt Benton said.

But the boats don't even leave the dock if the conditions aren't just right. By 8 a.m. most know whether they'll be on the water that day.

Days off

On their days off, which average about six days a week, the men do house and yard work and get their boats and crab pots ready for summer. On days when there is a chance of work, they can be found at Arby's convenience store across from Wenona Harbor waiting for the call.

They drink coffee, play cards, watch TV and talk.

"We're worse than women," Delmas Benton said. "We talk about everything."

This is how the watermen live during oyster season -- November through March.

The end of the oyster season signals the start of crab season in which they hope they will begin to make enough money to live. They barely break even from oystering; sometimes they don't.

Some make enough money for the year doing charter fishing expeditions and crabbing. Crabbing, they say, is what is keeping the watermen alive.

Some have given up the oyster trade, like Dickie Webster. He got tired of chasing after a crew, putting in the time only to dock each day with few bushels on board.

But others, like the Benton brothers, continue to go out year after year.

"I plan on going out until the day I die," Delmas Benton said. "I don't know how to do nothing else."

They can't live off the oysters any longer. In fact, they haven't lived off the oysters for at least two decades.

After years of bringing in upward of 160 bushels a day, Walt Benton remembers when he ended his last good season, already having 128 bushels on board.

In the summer of 1985, a parasite killed large numbers of Maryland's oyster population. The oysters never recovered, as toxins, chemicals and diseases killed a majority of the sexually mature adults.

The next fall, when Walt Benton returned to the same spot, he dipped three times, only getting a single oyster.

"I threw it back," he said. "If he survived disease, I wasn't going to kill him. You never take the last oyster."

They haven't had a harvest of any significance since, and watermen aren't sure of how to bring back the oyster population.

"They blame it on disease. It's easier to attack the disease than the real problem," Walt Benton said. "That's pollution. You have to be dumb not to know that."

Livelihoods come second
Seven options for restoring the bay and its native oysters are being discussed and researched by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They include supplementing native oysters with nonnative oysters, expanding native restoration, aquaculture native and nonnative species, discontinue native restoration efforts and implementing a temporary harvest moratorium on native oysters.

The watermen said that some of those efforts may eventually help, but a moratorium is not the best option.

"If it hasn't changed in 20 years, an extra (few years) won't help anything," Walt Benton said.

Webster said the bay may have a lot of young oysters, but there's no guarantee they'll live and grow to harvest size. The oysters typically do not live past three years of age because of disease and other toxic conditions so, he said, a moratorium would "do no good."

Sherman Baynard of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, and a member of the Oyster Advisory Commission, said the only thing the moratorium would do is allow a chance to wait and see if oysters rebound. They would see if the few oysters that survive the diseases and conditions would be strong enough to become viable and reproduce.

"It's a sad situation. The commercial fishermen are barely hanging on but they have other opportunities; they can get other jobs on land and water (like with an oyster aquaculture program). But the oysters have no choice. They have to stay and hope for the best," he said. "That's why the moratorium is an option."

Baynard said the decision lies in what is best for the oyster, whether it ends up on our plates or survives to live in the bay.

"Thirty dollars a bushel is not the best use of this resource for the citizens of Maryland," he said. "It's more important that they are an ecological engineer, build reefs, filter water and give habitats than they are as products. Where's the best value?"

With diseases, toxic algae blooms and poor water conditions, the oysters have the fight of their lives every day --and they're losing, Baynard said.

"Everything in nature is trying to kill (the oyster). The only defense the oyster has against everything is that it has to be able to out-reproduce the mortality that is put upon it. That's what it has to do and it can't do it," he said.

An Environmental Impact Statement outlining the options and possible repercussions will be finished in May with the Oyster Advisory Commission writing a report for the state and federal governments to decide on a course of action.

But, the outlook is grim.

"The moratorium is the last resort," Baynard said. "We don't even know if the moratorium would allow the oysters to regenerate. There's so much going on that's bad. Even with man's best efforts, we're not sure we can get them to regenerate and be self-sustaining. If you look solely at science it doesn't look pretty."

The oyster will never be extinct, Baynard said, offering no such assurances for the fate of the watermen. For most, they remain on the water because they know no other life.

"If you're a skipjack (captain), it's because your father was one and his father was one," Walt Benton said.

They struggle ceaselessly to stay afloat.

"We're just trying to survive," Walt Benton said. "We just need to get to summer."


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1 comment:

KYScoast said...

Hey, thanks for the informative post. I sure love oysters and am sorry to see the fishery under duress. Thanks for visiting my blog as well. And good luck with oyster regeneration.