On February 23rd, the James and Anne Robinson Foundation and the Friends of the Robinson Nature Center proudly partnered with The Robinson Nature Center to bring Howard County residents the first annual Bay Day, celebrating the culture and history of the Chesapeake Bay. This educational and fun afternoon gave visitors the opportunity to learn about the Chesapeake Watershed; to ask everything they always wanted to know about oysters; and to be informed about the importance of oyster shell recycling. And, of course, there were scrumptous seafood treats to enjoy.
The James and Anne Robinson Foundation sponsored the featured speaker of the day, Captain John Van Alstine. Captain John kept his audience spellbound with descriptions of life as a “waterman” on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Even the littlest visitors were fascinated by the nets and oyster pots and tools he brought with him. Captain John gave a demonstration of the “sewing” of a fish net. He pointed out that Watermen (they are not called fishermen) have to be carpenters (to fix their boats), blacksmiths and welders (to make and fix tools) in addition to being fishermen. Waterman make their own tools of the trade because they are specialized. Some of those tools have been used for over 100 years in basically the same style and made out of the same materials.
Life as a waterman is hard, physical work. For example, Captain John and his crew recycle oyster shells from their customers and other sources. It takes 6-8 hours just to unload oyster shells, without regard to collecting and storing them. Captain John then buys oyster larvae from the State of Maryland’s hatcheries and plants them in the recycled oyster shells on his 36 acre aqua culture farm. Then he has to wait for about three years for them to mature to a size that can be harvested and sold.
A few fun facts to remember
65% of summer catch is blue crabs. Watermen spend 8 hours a day picking crabs out of the pots. Jellyfish burn the watermen in August. They have to wear heavy shirts to protect their bodies and even then they get stung through the fabric.
Poaching is a big problem. There are not enough cops to board the boats to check on the catch.
Origami passenger pigeons created by Bay Day visitors at Friends’ table.
Oysters now bring $35 a bushel but can bring up to $100 a bushel if the waterman is licensed as a dealer. Dealers are licensed by the State of Maryland and must comply with stringent regulatory requirements in order to keep the license.
Licensed waterman can only fish in the tidal waters of Maryland, not fresh water.
If you want to taste the life of an Eastern Shore Waterman, Captain John is happy to oblige charters for fishing trips. I’m game – how about you?