Preserving the bay's bounty Oysterman realizes debt to ecosystem

December 02, 1990|By Phillip Davis | Phillip Davis,Sun Staff Correspondent

OFF GREENBURY POINT -- Here on the skipjack Stanley Norman, which is now tacking eastward on the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay toward an oyster bar known only to its skipper, the two sides of Ed Farley become apparent.

The gray-blue water off Annapolis is calm, and the boat is quiet, save for the luffing of the skipjack's canvas sails, high up the tall pine mast. The wind barely penetrates Mr. Farley's thick blue work shirt and jeans. It is a good day for oyster dredging.

Yet Mr. Farley's purpose today is not to dredge, at least not for profit. The 39-year-old Tilghman Islander is operating the Stanley Norman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the largest environmental organizations in the state.

Like a growing number of people who earn their living on the Chesapeake these days, Mr. Farley, a skipjack captain, is also a practicing environmentalist.

It wasn't always so, say people like Russell Dize, the president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "It should have been that way for many years, and it hasn't," Mr. Dize said recently. But now, he said, "I don't think anyone who works on the water today is not aware of the environment."

Today on the Stanley Norman, the rake-toothed iron dredges sitting on deck are too small to be of any use for real oystering. They'll be used for taking samples. There are microscopes and field manuals scattered on deck. The "head" -- on most skipjacks simply a bucket that is lowered overboard -- is a self-contained unit below decks that discharges no wastes into the bay.

And this early autumn day, Mr. Farley's "crew" consists mainly of a dozen teen-age students from McDonogh School in Baltimore, whom he has taken out to show firsthand how the bay's ecology works.

The skipjack slows as it nears the oyster bar, and back at the helm, Mr. Farley mutters to himself, "There's a big puff [of wind] in there, I know it."

As if on cue, the sails fill, the bow straightens and the boat eases up next to the bar.

He grabs the lines leading to the dredge and shows the students how to throw it overboard. A few minutes later, they're hauling in the wet rope, and soon the dredge is back on deck, filled with oysters, shells and even a couple of toadfish.

"This is an oyster," he says, deftly shucking one gnarly bivalve as the students gather round. The oyster is more than a delicacy, he points out; it is also one of the most efficient filters of the bay's waters, a key player in balancing the ecosystem.

"All those who like oysters, go to my right," he says. "All those who've never tried them, get on the left. And all those who don't like oysters -- get off my boat!"

Long before Mr. Farley was an environmentalist, he was a waterman. He was born and reared in New England; as a young man some 18 years ago, he found himself passing through the Eastern Shore and took a ride on a skipjack with an old Eastern Shore waterman. Already an accomplished boat carpenter and seaman, he fell in love with the skipjacks and the possibility of making a living sailing a classic wooden boat.

He hasn't moved west of Trappe Creek since.

"When I go out on my boat, powered by the wind and harvesting a natural resource that's renewable, I feel that I come as close as I can to not just exploiting an ecosystem. I feel like I'm at the hub of a wheel," he said.

Oyster-dredging skipjacks can be traced back to 1811 in these parts, when a fleet of boats known as New Haven Sharpies appeared in the bay, looking to escape the depleted oyster bars of Connecticut. By the end of the century, area residents had modified the boat to its current, thick-hulled, rake-masted form, with its gracefully jutting sprit bow.

No one really knows how the skipjacks got their name.

Back in 1948, Chesapeake Skipper magazine said the "old-timers"on the bay claimed that the boat was named after an active, jumping fish called the skipjack that was once common in local waters. The magazine said the boat was just as nimble as the fish, and "there can be no argument [the skipjack] is the ideal sailing craft for the Chesapeake."

At one time, more than 2,000 skipjacks plied the bay's waters, and in 1885, the oyster harvest was estimated to be 15 million bushels, an all-time high, according to Robert DeGast's seminal work, "The Oystermen of the Chesapeake."

But when Mr. Farley arrived on the scene in 1972 and bought the Stanley Norman three years later, the bay was already starting to show signs of distress, and the oyster harvest was among the first symptoms. Catches were averaging only about 3 million bushels a year, but still most skipjack crews earned a decent living.

Then in the 1980s, two deadly parasitic diseases -- MSX and dermo -- decimated the oyster population. By 1987, the annual harvest was down to a low of 360,000 bushels. Many a skipjack couldn't find enough oysters to meet even half the state limit of 150 bushels a day.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.