Shucking knives stilled at oyster firm Labor shortage, thin harvest cut work

November 01, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Oyster season has begun, but you'd never know it to look at the shucking room at Galesville's Woodfield Fish & Oyster Co.

Two room-length, metal tables show not a sign of shell or meat; conveyor belts and shucking knives lie idle. For the first time since Woodfield's opened in 1917, owners of the southern Anne Arundel County company say they probably won't be shucking any oysters at all this season.

The problem is twofold: not enough shuckers and not enough oysters. As poor as the oyster harvest has been in recent years, it's easier to find oysters than shuckers.

"The problem is labor, mostly," said Bill Woodfield, vice president of the company. "Last year we only ran about seven or eight [shuckers]. The people that know how to shuck oysters have all gotten too old or gotten other jobs," he said.

"Well, they've just gotten old and died," said Harold Day, president of Woodfield's.

Mr. Day said the company will continue to sell oysters, but will have them shelled on the Eastern Shore, where shuckers have apparently not been lured away in such great numbers by jobs at stores and fast-food restaurants.

"It's a job trying to find the labor around here," said Mr. Woodfield. "You look between here and Baltimore. There's nothing but shopping centers, restaurants. Plus, [shucking] is seasonal. They want a job that's full time."

As Mr. Day remembered, there were about 100 shuckers working September through April in the early 1950s. Woodfield's would turn out between 100,000 and 140,000 gallons of shucked oysters in a season. Last year, with about eight shuckers working a few hours a day, Mr. Day said Woodfield's produced about 5,000 gallons, hardly enough to justify the cost of running the shucking room.

Once the foundation of the business, oysters in recent years have accounted for only about 10 percent of Woodfield's sales. The lifeblood of the company is ice, delivered to groceries, vending boxes and restaurants from Anne Arundel to Baltimore and western suburbs.

"When I first started, they had this row going, that row going and another row," said Edward Johnson, standing in the empty xTC shucking room and pointing to the shiny metal tables, remembering when oysters were abundant and a fast shucker could make $10 an hour. The Galesville man first shucked oysters at Woodfield's when he was 20 years old, in 1954.

A tall, slim man with big hands, Mr. Johnson said he had to quit shucking a few years ago because it aggravated his arthritis. At 58, he works as a laborer at Woodfield's, spending most of his time bagging ice and driving trucks.

Lenora Crowner of Shady Side, also 58, said she shucked at Woodfield's last year and every one of the last 20 seasons. Because of illness, though, she said, "I think I'm just about finished now."

As she understands it, many of the older shuckers have found other jobs and are not being replaced by younger workers.

"I guess young people don't want to do it," she said. "They look at it and see it's very hard work, and there are so many other jobs around."

Henrietta Sellman, 75, lives just a few blocks from Woodfield's and until last year had shucked oysters there for about 50 years. She sat by her front window the other day in the warmth of a kerosene heater and said she'd pick up a knife again if she got the call from Woodfield's.

"I like it," she said, "just because I can go early and come back." When the shucking room was busy, shuckers would start before dawn and work for about four hours a day.

Mr. Day and Mr. Woodfield say the number of shuckers started dwindling in the 1960s, long before the oyster harvest declined sharply 20 years later. From the 1920s through the 1970s, the annual commercial harvest consistently reached 1.5 million to 2 million bushels, said Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the state Department of Natural Resources.

In 1987, the state's oyster beds were hit with a severe outbreak of two parasites, one attacking the oyster's digestive system, the other striking the gills. That year, the harvest fell to about half a million bushels, Mr. Jensen said. It has never recovered.

He said this year's harvest is expected to about equal last year's 325,000 bushels, as nearly three-quarters of the state's oyster beds are infected with the parasites. Nobody's sure what caused the parasite outbreak, Mr. Jensen said, but the most popular theory attributes it to drought and increased salt levels in the bay.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Jensen said that in the last few years he's seen fewer and fewer watermen on the bay during oyster season, which now runs from Oct. 1 to March 31.

And the silence in the Woodfield's shucking room is not expected to be interrupted this year.

"It's possible" Woodfield's might resume the operation this season, Mr. Day said. "But it's not probable."

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