CAMBRIDGE -- It's midafternoon and waterman Robert Lee Kelly has finished unloading the nine bushels of oysters he and a boat mate have hauled up from the Choptank River's dark waters.
Nine bushels are his reward for getting up before sunlight and driving all the way from Princess Anne to Cambridge to work on the water from dawn until after noon. And then unloading the oysters, cleaning his workboat, Miss Sheri II, and driving back home.
Nine bushels when the daily limit is 30 per boat.
Nine bushels that sell at dockside for $16 each -- about the same as 10 years ago -- with earnings to be split between two men.
Times are tough for Maryland watermen.
But they could be doubly bad for Mr. Kelly if it weren't for the nifty twin-boom, tandem-rigged, hydraulic tong-puller, complete with heel-activated starter button, air-conditioner motor clutch, and variable-speed, crab-line spool that adorns the Miss Sheri II.
If it weren't for that contraption, Mr. Kelly might have come off the water twice as tired with half the harvest.
For watermen such as Mr. Kelly who still catch oysters with shaft tongs, the device helps them stay in the seafood business by allowing them to harvest oysters in deeper waters without exerting the back-breaking work required by heavier tongs.
"I'd have trouble getting off the boat now if I didn't have it," said the 28-year-old Deal Island native. "This can pull them up a lot longer than I can."
The mechanized tong puller or "winder" offers an alternative to lifting heavy shaft tongs out of the water by hand, as had been the practice of Chesapeake Bay oyster harvesters since before European settlers came to the tidewater region.
The device was considered an oddity when it was developed in the early 1980s. Oysters were still fairly plentiful and could be found easily in the shallow waters frequented by watermen who operated the standard 14- and 16-foot shaft tongs by hand.
But a steep decline in the oyster industry, brought on by shellfish diseases, silt and pollution, has forced most shaft tongers to switch to the hydraulic puller and seek oyster beds in water as deep as 30 feet.
Conventional tongs consist of a pair of wooden shafts, ideally made from Georgia pine, and a two-piece steel head with metal teeth fastened to one end. By moving the shafts in a scissors-like motion, the waterman opens and closes the head so that it scoops up a small quantity of oysters below the water. The tongs are pulled hand-under-hand out of the water and the contents of the head are dumped on the boat.
But with one end of a cable or rope line attached to a shaft and the other end to the hydraulic rig, a waterman can step on a switch that activates a pulley, lifting the tongs out of the water with little muscle.
A 30-foot shaft tong weighs about 25 pounds empty and as much as twice that when the head is filled with a mixture of oysters and mud. With two hydraulic winders fixed to his boat, Mr. Kelly estimated that he and his work mate completed as many as 300 "dips" of the tongs to catch nine bushels of oysters.
Without the rig, he said, he might consider staying on land.
"It would cut me in half, you get tired so quick," he said.
Use of the winders, which are lighter, smaller and less productive than the hydraulic "patent tongs" used by other watermen in deeper parts of the bay, was formally approved by the legislature several years ago after state natural resources officials questioned the devices' legality.
Changes in shaft-tonging methods have been rare, and the winder caught some people by surprise. Eventually it gained wide acceptance.
"This is probably the newest thing to help the hand tonger in many a year," said Robert Condon, of Cambridge, who makes and repairs the rigs. "It was like when you had a power mower and then you got a riding mower."
While the winder keeps Mr. Kelly and other tongers in business at least for another year, the future of the oyster industry remains cloudy.
Maryland watermen harvested 1.6 million bushels of oysters during the 1985-1986 season. The harvest plummeted to 415,000 bushels at the end of the 1990-1991 season, with tongers catching a smaller percentage of the crop.
And state Department of Natural Resources figures show that watermen have delivered fewer than 196,000 bushels to the docks as of Jan. 14, more than two-thirds of the way through the current oyster season, which ends this month.
During the same period last year, the catch was more than 242,000 bushels.