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Saving Oysters
. . . And Oystermen


Saving oysters without saving oystermen could be yet another tragedy of the commons. We would gain cleaner water, but lose for good some of the colorful communities whose workboats and waterfronts and festivals helped create the history and cultural flavor (and spice) of the tidewater region.

The Paradox of the Commons

The first time Mike Vlahovich saw Art Daniels' boat, he started worrying. After lying on its side in the water for three days, the City of Crisfield had been pumped out, refloated and towed to a dock at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. Vlahovich was the boatbuilder newly hired by the museum to run their ambitious Skipjack Restoration Project. This was not the boat he wanted to start with.

The skipjack sat at the museum dock for eight months while a committee of four skipjack captains and one judge tried to decide which boat in the aging fleet should go up on the railway first. While the captains debated, Vlahovich and his staff surveyed the damage on Daniels' boat - and worried some more.

"She was in horrendous shape," explains Rich Schofield, head rigger at the museum. Skipjack dredging not only tears up oyster bottom, it tears up oyster boats. "You are putting a dredge off each side and you are dragging across the bottom, digging up the bottom as you go," says Schofield. The dredge cables are lifting hundred pound hauls on both sides of the boat, dozens of times a day. "As you're dragging this, that is just pulling the boat apart at all times. It is awfully hard on a hull." Daniels' boat would need a new hull to start with and then at least a dozen additional repairs.

This brand new Skipjack Restoration Program, however, was working under a very small grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, a grant of $150,000 that was supposed to repair three working skipjacks a year. With all the work it needed, the City of Crisfield could easily suck up all the money by itself - and sink the new program.

When Art Daniels, as the oldest oysterman, got the committee's vote, Vlahovich pulled his boat up on the railway in late August and went to work. A new bottom meant new chine logs along both sides, new transverse strong backs to stiffen the hull, new planking, and new bow staving. They would also have to replace the bowstem and bowsprit, rebuild the transom and build a new longhead. Then there would be recaulking and refastening and repainting. The plan was to get the boat back in the water before Christmas.

One of the keys to the low-cost restoration is a master boat builder like Vlahovich. An ex-salmon fisherman from the west coast, he is lean and dark bearded, slow talking and deliberate, and years ago he decided that his second calling would be historical boat restoration. His new vocation made him a vagabond for a while, as he moved his family back and forth between the west coast and the Chesapeake. His first east coast job, ironically, was in the Virginia boatyard where the City of Crisfield was first assembled.

Later he was hired several times by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to repair their flagship skipjack the Stanley Norman, a job that brought him to nearby Tilghman's Island. There he found himself working in a harbor that still held half a dozen skipjacks. When he heard a museum up the road wanted to repair all the boats in the fleet, the vagabond had found a new home.

There was, of course, a contradiction buried in the heart of the Save Our Skipjacks movement, a contradiction that could sink the new program all by itself. Earlier efforts to rehab skipjacks, for the most part, turned them into ecological tour boats. This new program, on the other hand, funded during the depths of an ecological crisis, was not primarily about education - but exploitation. It's goal: get the old skipjacks back out on the water, get them back to work dredging oysters off an oyster commons that's already depleted.

The state of Maryland was trying to put oysters back in the Bay to revive water quality; at the same time it was rebuilding the boats that helped tear down the reefs in the first place.

Call it a contradiction or, better yet, call it a paradox. Maryland is taking a two-pronged approach to the tragedy on its oyster commons: it is trying to save both oysters and oystermen. What looks like a contradiction, however, has an underlying logic at work.

Call it the paradox of the commons: these wooden boats, dredging out oysters despite leaking hulls and rotting sails, still stand for a way of life, and that way of life is a kind of cultural commons that Marylanders still draw on. Oystering in Maryland, by design, always demanded hard labor and a savvy reading of weather and winds, natural cycles and market forces. It also seemed to breed a self-reliance and an individualism bordering on recklessness and, occasionally, on lawlessness. And those who endure on the water will admit unabashedly that they love the work.

This way of life survives mostly in a handful of towns and villages and islands, but the myth of the waterman symbolizes so much about early American values and the history of the tidewater region that it is still widely admired by urbanites and suburbanites all around the state. These are men and women, let's face it, who manage to get by without submitting to rush hours, desk work and office buildings with sealed windows. "It is a significant way of life that is really threatened," says Vlahovich, the fisherman turned boat builder. "I guess it's just a personal belief that the value of the culture is just too great too lose."

Saving oysters without saving oystermen could be yet another tragedy of the commons. We would gain cleaner water, but lose for good some of the colorful communities whose workboats and waterfronts and festivals helped create the history and cultural flavor (and spice) of the tidewater region. That's why the skipjack, not the sailing yacht or the cabin cruiser, is still the state's symbolic boat.

Rebuilding the Boats

On a blustery morning in December, one day before the darkest day of the year, five days before Christmas, the City of Crisfield was ready to go back in the water. "There's nothing like a boat launching," John Valliant likes to say. He's president of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and he'd like to host a lot of launchings as his museum, boat by boat, tries to repair all the working skipjacks in the oystering fleet.

The morning begins in the wood boat shop with a breakfast of roasted oysters and scrapple amid the smells of sawdust and wood oils. Wandering among the saws and planes and drills and rigging tools, there are dredgers and tongers, locals and tourists, several reporters and a film crew. Playing host are the carpenters and apprentices who rebuilt the boat and the grant writers and researchers and museum staff who raised the money. Mike Vlahovich is giving the first of many interviews. Everyone is wondering whether Art Daniels will make it up from Deal Island.

Outside in the early morning chill, the City of Crisfield sits alone on the marine railway, perched high in her cradle, her wide bottom and curving sides closed up with new wood, her raked mast pointing at the shifting clouds, her lean new bowsprit throwing a long left jab at the wind. Like most skipjacks, she can look bargey and sleek at the same time. At the end of the bowsprit, someone has pinned a clump of Christmas holly.

Topside there is still work to do: towards the stern is a neatly framed hole where a new cabin has to go, and most of the old rotting deck still has to be replaced. The museum spent all the $50,000 allotted for this one boat and then some. It raised additional funds, spent part of its own operating funds and found some donations of wood.

Art Daniels will now have to finish his own boat, but her bottom structure may be as sound as the day she was built, says Rich Schofield, the rigger. "And that's where you drown - from the bottom up."

When Daniels drives up in his red pickup, he is carrying a bushel of Deal Island oysters in the back, and the first thing he does is start showing them off. "Look at that, " he says to a young waterman, pointing at the new spat on his oyster shells. "Little oysters, all over, millions of 'em." The newly set oysters excite him as much as his newly built boat.

The speech making begins in earnest with Valliant as host trying to set a theme for the day. "The program is not about that boat right there. It's about Captain Daniels going back and dredging," he says. "It's about the community of Deal Island, of Tilghman Island, of Cambridge, and all the communities that have skipjacks - and what it means to have that boat, the icon of the Chesapeake, still working today."

The skipjack as icon clearly means a lot to this crowd, now grown to 150 or more and gathered from small communities and large cities on both sides of the Bay.

They've come here to a museum campus that features an old lighthouse rescued from the shoals of Hooper Strait and a fleet of restored workboats including a bugeye, a skipjack, a crab dredger and a draketail workboat, all of them a lot older than the City of Crisfield.

There are more speeches and applause and hundreds of photographs. All this energy and interest in the relaunching of a 50-year-old boat and an 80-year-old captain. All these people trying to capture this piece of the past with film and tape and memory. On a chilly morning in a St. Michaels boatyard, an old commons comes alive again.

At the podium Vlahovich, in a faded flannel jacket with a broken zipper, thanks the funders and all his apprentices. Daniels, his hat cocked to one side, thanks the Lord, the museum and the carpenters. A bottle of champagne is bashed across her bowstem - and steady on her cradle the City of Crisfield starts inching downhill towards the harbor. A long steel cable holds cradle and boat on the railway, and back in a small wooden shack, Rich Schofield works brakes and gears, unwinding the cable, letting the cradle and boat roll downhill, one safe foot at a time.

A boat launching from a marine railway like this is always a slow-motion event. There is time for visiting and catching up, for questions and answers, for story telling and memory telling. Pete Sweitzer, the only German captain on the Bay, sidles up to Art Daniels, one of various Irish captains, and soon there are tales of old storms, of canvas sails that froze stiff, of boats that sank, of men and women who passed on.

And in the face of oyster disease and decline and the death of friends, there is also hope. When a television reporter from Washington asks whether oysters can still support skipjacks, both the German and the Irishman erupt. "Down where we live the whole bottom is full of little oysters," says Daniels. "They're coming back," says Sweitzer. "Good Lord took 'em away. He'll bring 'em back."

A deadrise rises again: with its classic V-bottom deadrise hull now replanked and restaved, the City of Crisfield stands ready for re-launching, thanks to the skilled shipwrights working with the Skipjack Restoration Project of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

The City of Crisfield  stands ready for re-launching - photo by Michael Fincham

A Future for the Commons

As an oyster biologist Ken Paynter thinks the good Lord will need some help. "We're going to become ecological engineers to some extent," he says.

Since the weather started warming he's been driving out on the Bay again in his boat Crassostrea and putting divers down onto oyster bars. Their findings are encouraging and discouraging. It's clear that oyster bars, properly replanted, can create habitat for all kinds of crabs and fish and plants - and get there within two years. The first piece of bad news: not a lot of new oyster spat are being recruited to these replanted bars. The second piece: most oysters on high-salinity bars are killed off by disease by their third year.

How could ecological engineering help? Perhaps by replanting the Chesapeake with Crassostrea ariakensis, an Asian oyster that grows to market size faster and resists disease better. For Paynter, Asian oysters might be an answer in time, but he thinks there are still some engineering options to try with the Bay's native species, Crassostrea virginica. Those options could not only help watermen, they could also help focus all the volunteer energy unleashed by oyster restoration programs around the Bay.

In moderate salinity waters, oysters could be replanted and then harvested as soon as they reach market size and before disease overwhelms them. With these short-lived oysters, he says, "it's okay for watermen to take them."

In low salinity waters, on the other hand, replanted oyster reefs would be left alone in sanctuaries. "There they can live longer, "says Paynter, "get bigger, create more structure and filter more water."

Oysters for commerce - and oysters for ecology. Not a bright future, not a dark future, but for the oyster commons of Maryland, perhaps a workable future. That, at least, is the gospel according to Paynter and many other oyster scientists.

Nearly a year would pass before Daniels went oystering again.

On a November morning in 2002, he motored out of Wenona harbor in his rebuilt skipjack and once again began throwing dredges overboard into the waters around Deal Island. He went out with a culling crew of relatives and locals, and they spent a long day looking through dredge haul after dredge haul, only to find thousands of dead oysters and empty shells. They came back to the dock with a day's haul of 25 bushels.

The little oysters Daniels had seen a year ago had not grown up yet, and the ones from two years earlier were already dead from disease. The 50-bushel days of 1999 were long gone and the good Lord apparently wasn't ready to bring them back.

His first day out was a "push day" - and so was every other dredging day the rest of the season. Throughout a winter of snow and ice and only scattered dredging days, Daniels never raised a sail on his refurbished skipjack.

"I did a lot of looking," he said, "and I found a lot of nothing."

But he did get his chance to go sailing. Back on Labor Day weekend, he'd signed up for the Deal Island Skipjack Races. For 43 years now, the races have been the centerpiece of a waterfront festival that brings dozens of watermen and hundreds of visitors down to the island. They come for the races and the workboat contests, but also for the blessing of the fleet, for the food and the music and the small-town friendliness - all blessings of a way of life that still hangs on down here at the end of the marshes at the edge of the Chesapeake. For that first Monday in September, the oldest oysterman could once more feel his born-again boat come alive in his hands. Over a 12-mile course, around two buoys, in a contest with eight other skipjacks, Art Daniels brought his City of Crisfield home in first place.

For More Information


The tragedy of the commons. 1968. Garrett Hardin. Science 162:1243-1248.

Notes on Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks. 1988. Reprinted from The American Neptune, October 1944. Howard I. Chapelle. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. St. Michaels, Md.

Chesapeake Bay Crabbing Skiffs. 1979. Howard I. Chapelle. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. St. Michaels, Md.

The Weather Gauge. A scholarly journal on Bay history published twice yearly by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks. 1993. Pat Vojtech. Tidewater Publishers. Centreville, Md.

Chesapeake Sailing Craft. 1975. Robert H. Burgess. Tidewater Publishers. Cambridge, Maryland.

Chesapeake Bay: A Pictorial Maritime History. 1956. M.V. Brewington. Cornell Maritime Press.

Working the Water: The Commercial Fisheries of Maryland's Patuxent River. 1988. Paula Johnson, ed. The University Press of Virginia. Charlottesville, Va.

Working the Chesapeake: Watermen on the Bay. Mark E. Jacoby. 1991. Maryland Sea Grant College. College Park, Md.

The Oystermen of the Chesapeake. 1970. Photographed and written by Robert de Gast. International Marine Pub. Co. Camden, Me.


Paynter Labs. Video clips of Ken Paynter's work on oyster restoration, disease dynamics, genetics. www.life.umd.edu/biology/paynterlab/

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. St. Michael's, Maryland. Photographs and descriptions of the Skipjack Restoration Project and the museum's collection of historic watercraft. www.cbmm.org

Calvert Marine Museum. Information on the museum's exhibits and its collection of workboats, www.calvertmarinemuseum.com

Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia. On-line essays on Chesapeake Bay history and boats, www.mariner.org/chesapeakebay/

Chesapeake Bay Skipjack Kathryn. National Historic Landmark Study. Ralph Eshelman. 1993. This website for the Maritime Heritage Program carries descriptions of hundreds of historic ships. www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/nhl/kathryn.htm


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