Oyster prices end in flap Tilghman watermen keep boats docked

$18 per bushel protested

Strike comes during a plentiful harvest

October 31, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Watermen whose boats have been docked in this historic fishing town for three days are vowing to continue "sitting ashore" until they get more money for the oysters that provide the bulk of their incomes during the fall and winter.

Angry that seafood buyers and packers in the Bay Hundred area in Talbot County, from St. Michael's to Tilghman Island, are paying $18 a bushel when the going rate in other parts of the Eastern Shore is $22 to $24, the watermen say striking is their only option. Oyster prices are set by the market.

"These are the kinds of prices we were getting back in the '80s, and three years ago, we were getting $26 [a bushel]," said Warren Murphy, one of a dozen watermen who gathered early yesterday at the Fairbank Tackle shop in Tilghman. "People in Baltimore are not going to have their Thanksgiving oysters unless we get what we want."

The strikers say they have widespread support throughout the Shore, but they appear to have drawn a mixed reaction in some areas, depending on local prices.

Many watermen on Kent Island, as well as many of those who work the Little Choptank River in Dorchester County, have backed their colleagues in Tilghman.

But their counterparts in Kent County's Rock Hall have continued oystering because prices there have remained high, and seafood buyers say it has been business as usual along the Choptank River near Cambridge.

"I think a lot of us are just going to have to go deer hunting fora few days," said George Bridges, who was waiting out the strike at P.T. Hambelton Seafood in Bozman yesterday. "It's hard for us all to get together on anything, but we all have to make a living."

Joey Horney, a Kent Island waterman who has kept his boat on Taylor's Island in Dorchester County since the oyster season began Oct. 1, said he joined the strike when the per-bushel rate dropped to $18.

"I had been getting $22 a bushel, $20 plus a $2 hauling fee to bring my oysters 50 miles back home to sell," Horney said. "I can tell you that everybody on the Little Choptank has quit working, and most of the guys at Kent Narrows are staying home, too," he said. "This is the time when things ought to be at their peak. The market just disappears after Christmas. If we don't make our money now, we won't make it."

Quality varies

Oyster buyers offer a variety of factors for price differences, saying that the quality of the oysters varies from location to location.

"As far as we know, watermen are working on the Nanticoke because we have a truck down there ready to pick up oysters," said Jacqueline Scharch, who runs the Oyster Peddler, a seafood wholesale business in Sherwood, just outside Tilghman.

Scharch says she thinks that Tilghman watermen are overreacting. A check of her records going back a decade or more shows that prices this time of year are normally lower.

"Everything depends on the quality of the oyster," Scharch. "It is amazing how much they can vary. Right now, the oysters coming out of the Chester River have been beautiful. I think they're just going to hurt themselves. If they'd wait until we get some cold weather, the oysters will improve, and prices will improve."

Watermen and buyers acknowledge that oysters are more plentiful this year than they have been in nearly a decade. Oyster harvests have been increasing for the past few years, and state officials predict that this year's harvest should equal or exceed last year's catch of 285,000 bushels.

But after a poor summer for crabbing, watermen say earning as much as possible for oysters is crucial this year. Many say they find it hard to understand why they make less money when retail prices continue to rise. A sign outside Harrison's Seafood in Tilghman yesterday read: "Bushels $30, half-bushels $20."

Strike will continue

Prohibited by state regulations from working on weekends, the Tilghman watermen say they plan to continue the strike on Monday and perhaps into Tuesday.

"We're on strike, and we're going to stay on strike until we get a price we can live with," said Patrick Whewell. "It doesn't look like there's going to be any NBA basketball this year and it looks like there won't be any oysters. We're all free agents."

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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