Enjoying a bountiful harvest

MARYLAND JOURNAL

As holidays near, oysters prove plentiful in and around the bay

November 20, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

Neavitt -- The fog on Broad Creek hangs like cotton as Floyd "Bunky" Chance Jr. wends his way toward the Choptank River and one of three oyster bars he knows are bulging with fat bivalves.

In the cluttered wheelhouse of Chance's 30-foot work boat, Our Daily Bread, satellite navigational equipment flashes and a depth finder displays the outline of the shoal he is searching for. In the murky pre-dawn, he easily locates the reef, 14 feet below the surface of the brown-gray waters near St. Michaels.

"Most of [the oysters] are going to be on the shallow side of that slope down there," Chance says, as his partner, Alvin Richardson Jr., nods in agreement. "There's a load of them down there for sure."

The two Talbot County watermen, next-door neighbors in the nearby waterfront community of Bozman, will spend the next six hours scouring the creek's sandy bottom to bring Marylanders oysters for their holiday tables.

Before the men begin, they pause for perhaps 30 seconds. Bowing their heads and clutching battered caps, Chance says, "Dear Lord, we thank you for the opportunity to be out here to work and provide for our families. Amen."

Chance throttles back on the boat's rumbling diesel and quickly tosses overboard a small anchor attached to an empty plastic motor oil container.

The bobbing blue marker will serve as a low-tech buoy the two watermen slowly circle until midday, or whenever they've hauled in their daily limit of two dozen bushels of oysters - the succulent bounty that folks in the region can't seem to get enough of this time of year.

Trolling in a slow circle, Chance, 46, drops a heavy steel dredge on the oyster bar below, dragging its metal teeth across the shells and scooping them into the metal contraption. Then he hits a foot pedal to raise the dredge and dumps the load into the boat.

As the dredge disappears underwater again, the pair of watermen are deftly culling out empty shells, as well as healthy oysters smaller than the required 3-inch minimum. They throw them back into the water and toss the market-size prey into bushel baskets.

Chance eyeballs the pile of oysters, and the two men check once more to be sure they are big enough to be legal. Richardson, 59, uses a handmade "culling hammer" to measure the size of any that are too close to call.

Their diligence pays off in late morning, when Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police officers check Chance's boat and others, looking for undersized oysters. Chance, who keeps his license in a hymnal stashed in the cabin, passes the random search.

Chance and Richardson say the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, unlike so many recent years, is providing a serendipitous oyster harvest - timed perfectly for the holiday season.

As the heavy fog burns off, 50 or more boats become visible. They've come to Broad Creek from all over, as word has gotten out about plentiful oysters here.

Like most watermen, or at least most power-dredgers, Chance and Richardson insist that scraping the bars provides better habitats for baby oysters, called spat. They compare it to a farmer cultivating or tilling the soil. After a dismal harvest of 26,471 bushels three years ago, watermen reported catching more than 72,000 bushels the next year and about 133,000 bushels last season.

But there is no research to support the claim that the dredging helps oysters. And the number of dredge boats working on Broad Creek is evidence of the kind of harvesting efficiency that worries some scientists and state regulators. They contend that it makes little sense to allow power-dredging when the oyster population remains abysmally low by historical standards; in 1986, Maryland's oyster harvest was more than 1.5 million bushels. That was before disease and overfishing all but wiped out the species.

"It might be a great year for catching oysters just because the state has opened up more areas for power dredging," says Michael Roman, director of the University of Maryland's Horn Point laboratory in Cambridge. "There is a recommendation that some sort of study be done to see if the watermen are right about dredging."

Meanwhile, it seems that on land, everyone is looking for oysters - shucked or in the shell, to fry or make into fritters or add to stuffing or for traditional oyster stew.

With seafood dealers offering watermen $30 a bushel on the dock, Chance prefers to sell his catch to restaurants and seafood markets from Pasadena to Clarksville and as far away as Frederick. This way, he makes about 40 percent more.

Oyster season is a six-month run from October through March, but Anne Arundel County seafood dealer William Fifer, one of Chance's regular customers for about five years, says the jump in demand begins now with Thanksgiving and won't slow up until about mid-January.

"This is the season right now," said Fifer, who buys 40 to 50 bushels from Chance every week for his restaurant and market on Mountain Road.

Andrew Evans, who owns the upscale Inn at Easton, says local seafood is a year-round staple, the selection varying with the season. On his winter menu, Evans keeps it pretty simple - "Chesapeake Fried Oysters," cooked in semolina flour, spices and butter sauce.

"Oysters, when they're in season, have absolutely got to be on the menu," Evans says. "It's such a winner, I'd be crazy to take it off."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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