Bountiful harvest

Watermen cash in on surprising oyster haul

Friday, Dec. 23, 2005

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Dean Geiser⁄The Gazette
H.B. Huseman is one of Southern Maryland’s watermen who enjoyed a strong oyster harvest this fall.

The Patuxent River is yielding an unexpected bounty of oysters that has not only kept local watermen busy but has attracted others from the Eastern Shore to cash in on the bonanza.

As many as 20 boats this fall worked oyster bars in the lower Patuxent and as many as 12 boats were at the Broadneck Reserve in the middle Patuxent, newly opened for harvest.

With oysters commanding $35 a bushel, watermen often reached their daily limit of 30 bushels per two-person crew by 1 p.m.

News spread to the Eastern Shore. Workboats from Smith Island, Hoopers Island, Crisfield and Tilghman Island joined in on the action. Most make the daily commute across the sometimes-choppy Chesapeake Bay.

‘‘It’s amazing. Last year they weren’t catching eight or nine bushels” a day, said Tommy Crowder, a waterman from McKay’s Beach. He and his partner Sheldon Russell have been landing 100 bushels a week using a patent tonger, which is a mechanical device that scrapes the oyster beds.

The Broadneck Reserve, which opened for hand-tonging harvest on Nov. 14, has yielded 700 bushels, said Tommy Zinn, a Lusby waterman who has been monitoring the harvests on behalf of the Oyster Recovery Project, the agency that coordinated the efforts to seed the beds.

‘‘They’re in very good shape,” with many of the oysters exceeding the minimum length of 3 inches, he said.

Thomas ‘‘Dusty” Welch, 85, got a bushel from the reserve using hand tongs — long-handled claws that river down through the water to oyster beds — which is not an easy task. ‘‘That’s a young man’s job. It’s hard work,” Welch said. The reserve has pretty much been picked over, he said, but the initial oysters were good sized.

Welch, a lifelong resident of the waterside town of Benedict, starting plying the waters of the Patuxent when he was 13 years old, alongside his father, who was a waterman.

He may go out again, but with the weather turning, he said he’ll catch just enough for dinner for him and his wife, Margaret. But ‘‘if they ain’t good, I won’t go out any more.”

George Abbe, a scientist with Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center who has been monitoring the health of the bivalves, estimates there are 2,000 bushels in the reserve. About half will be taken this season, he said. Oyster season runs through the spring.

Chris Judy, a scientist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was impressed with the reserve’s yield. ‘‘Based on preliminary reports of 700 bushels, Broadneck will significantly contribute to the Patuxent River harvest,” Judy said.

Perhaps more reserves should be created, said Zinn, who is president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association. ‘‘It would be nice if we had other reserves to work,” he said.

Eastern Shore watermen unfamiliar with the river have been following Harry Huseman, a lifelong St. Mary’s County waterman, to see where he’s going to work. ‘‘They don’t know the oyster bars like Captain Harry,” Crowder said. ‘‘He can’t go out without a small pack of boats following him.’’

Huseman, regarded by many as the oldest full-time waterman on the Patuxent, doesn’t mind. ‘‘There’s an old saying, ‘Everybody’s got to be somewhere,’” he said with a chuckle.

Huseman’s day starts at 6:30 a.m. when he leaves his waterfront home. He works until around noon and calls it a day. ‘‘That’s it. I’m bushed by that time,’’ Huseman said.

It’s not as if he’s a fresh-scrubbed youngster. ‘‘I can’t keep up with the young ones any more. I’m going on 82. I gotta slow down.”

Now it’s time for the hard work.

‘‘The gravy’s gone,’’ Crowder said, meaning the most productive beds have been worked over. ‘‘Now you gotta go back and start grinding’’ the beds that have already been harvested.

Southern Maryland was once home to a thriving oyster industry. Packing houses could be found in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s to process them. The reputation of the Patuxent River’s shellfish was well known, Welch said. ‘‘They were the best oysters around.’’

Records going back to 1962 indicate 1972’s harvest from the Patuxent was the biggest: 236,453 bushels. By 2000, a mere 600 bushels were pulled from the river.

Crowder said he found many undersized oysters while working the bars. That could bode well for future harvests, if disease doesn’t once again reappear and decimate the young shellfish.

‘‘It’s probably the most little oysters I’ve seen in years,’’ Crowder said. ‘‘But we’ve had this before and we get let down time and time again.’’

Like his father, Crowder is a full-time waterman. Come January, he’ll start getting his fish traps ready for the coming season.

‘‘For most of the oystermen, they get it in their mind you never count on oysters for a living,’’ he said. ‘‘I make my year from fishing. If I catch oysters, it’s a bonus on top of that. That’s why there’s so few people left oystering.’’