ST. MICHAELS – It’s still dark outside when Guy Spurry and his 19-year-old son Austin begin their day.
Beneath the darkness of the November sky, the two men drive past the Eastern Shore fishing village of Neavitt, and pull up to a dock where Guy Spurry’s 31-year-old boat, the Voyager, rocks back and forth gently against the salty waves.
Watermen have been harvesting the seafood enjoyed by Marylanders for centuries. But only time will tell how long the tradition will last.
“It’s hard enough to make it as a waterman these days, given the fact that so many of the things that they’re harvesting — like crabs — the numbers are declining,” said Kate Livie, director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum of St. Michaels.
The Spurry father-and-son duo hop on their boat and cruise away from Neavitt wharf as orange and pink emerges above the darkness of the skyline. When the bright autumn trees dotting the shoreline grow distant, the boat slows to a halt. The men release a power dredge into the water, pulling up a metal net full of oysters.
“Right now we’re doing great. We’re catching our limit,” Guy Spurry said.
Power dredging, a method used to harvest oysters, has been permitted in Broad Creek, an Eastern Shore tributary of the Choptank River, since 2003. The method involves using a dredge to scrape the shellfish up from oyster bars. It’s a more efficient alternative to the labor-intensive, hand-tonging method.
The men cull through their catch, pushing small oysters into a large pile that will be thrown back into the brackish water. Oysters measuring three inches or greater are good for the taking. They’re dropped into an orange bushel basket.
This is Austin Spurry’s first year working as a full-time waterman. He’s learning the ropes from his father, he said.
Austin Spurry is a fourth generation waterman and will carry on the family tradition, like his father.
“It’s generally a family thing,” said Guy Spurry.
Guy Spurry quit school at 16 to go oystering with his own father, he said. His 72-year-old father, Joe Spurry Sr., owns the seafood distribution company, Bay Hundred Seafood, and the Chesapeake Landing restaurant in St. Michaels.
“I went with him probably when I was 14 in the summertime, and I knew what I was going to do,” Guy Spurry said. “It was good back then and it’s good now. We’ve had some ups and downs just like any job,” he said. “But to be successful you’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
The history of watermen is a long standing one, and is rooted in Maryland culture, said Kelley Phillips Cox, president of the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center in Tilghman.
“It’s been part of our heritage since the 1600s. It’s a very important culture we’re losing here in Maryland,” Cox said.
Cox is a marine biologist who comes from a long line of watermen. Her family has been on the Eastern Shore since 1634, she said.
Cox works on trying to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean, most importantly for the watermen who provide food to the region’s inhabitants, she said.
“I think it’s getting better,” especially over the past five years, she said. “What’s happened is we finally bottomed out on disease. What’s going to die from diseases is pretty much dead. It’s kind of like natural selection. The oysters are now reproducing and they have a little more disease resistance.”
Dermo and MSX, parasitic organisms that can infect an oyster and lead to its death, are diseases that have plagued the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay for years, according to Eric Weissberger, an environmental specialist with Maryland Department of the Environment’s Fishery Service.
Despite reports showing a dwindling oyster population, Guy Spurry said oystering has been good for him this year.
“It’s a lot better now than it was 15, 10 years ago,” he said. “We were allowed to start power dredging in 2003. You couldn’t even make yourself do the job. It was pitiful. You’d catch about five bushel a day if you could force yourself to stay and do it.”
But, by 2005, he said they caught 10 bushels an hour.
“It’s all due to mother nature being on your side,” he said. “Disease can come along… and they [the oysters] can be all gone this time next year.”
Watermen say increased regulations and oyster sanctuaries have strained them financially.
Talbot County watermen were forced to stop harvesting in Harris Creek, when the area was closed in 2010 and turned into an oyster sanctuary.
“By protecting some areas, we hope to rebuild the population. Sanctuaries are necessary to protect the broodstock of the oyster population,” Weissberger said.
But Harris Creek was a productive area for oyster harvesting.
“Harris Creek was one of our main [oyster] tonging areas. So now we’re just corralled into a small area in Broad Creek,” said Lisa Gowe, treasurer and event coordinator for the Talbot County Watermen’s Association. Gowe’s husband, John, is a fifth-generation waterman who has been harvesting seafood since the age of 15.
According to Phillips, the oyster sanctuaries are necessary to improve the water, but she disagrees with the amount of sanctuaries across the state.
“The biggest problem I have with it, is that the state is not allowing the watermen to even cultivate it. …As far as Harris Creek goes, we’ve just closed it and we’re not allowing anything to happen to it,” she said.
Phillips explained that a layer of sediment covers the oysters reefs when left untouched. The oysters eventually die when covered by the sediment, she said.
Power dredging the bottom, cultivates the oysters and removes the layer of sediment that forms over the oysters. It’s kind of like cultivating a field, said Mick Blackistone, executive director of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
“There are too many people that think it doesn’t help, and it does. We’re proven that it does,” Blackistone said.
The watermen wish regulators and scientists would listen to them, Blackistone said.
“The bureaucrats making these decisions do not listen to the watermen and don’t really take our advice,” he said. “And they should because we know the water. We know the fisheries better than they do.”
“If they would listen to us, and take our knowledge and merge it with their scientific findings, then to me you have a win-win situation,” he said.
Livie said the division between watermen, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and some of the environmental groups has been a longstanding one. It goes back to the late 19th and early-20th century when the first major crash in the oyster harvest occurred, she said.
Despite the regulations, watermen like Guy and Austin Spurry will continue doing the work their fathers did before them.
“I try to get along with everybody. I don’t have nothing against them but some of their theories are wrong. And watermen’s theories are wrong too, sometimes. You know. It’s just the way it is,” Guy Spurry said.