Last Sail for the Skipjack?

Along the low waters of the Chesapeake Bay the tall masts of a few oyster dredge boats signal another winter harvest–still to be made with the benefit of the wind. These wooden sailboats, called “skipjacks,” are the last working sail used by commercial fishermen in North America. For nearly 130 years, the skipjack fleet has worked the waters of the Bay in a mode some have called “enforced obsolescence.” In 1865, Maryland passed a “sail-only” law, limiting dredging of oysters to wind power—one of the first conservation statutes in the country. Incredibly, skipjacks have survived, but this season may be their last. When they disappear, so will the last vestige of the 500-year Age of Sail.

            Exclusively operating in the late autumn and winter in the Maryland half of the Bay, skipjacks start their oyster season on November the first. Two enormous sails are used to pull the heavy dredges that rake oysters from the bottom of the Bay. Sail power is required for three days of the week; motor power via a push boat is allowed on two days. (The captains are allowed to choose which days for each.) Last year only one boat—the City of Crisfield—chose to unfurl its sails; the rest of the small fleet restricted themselves to power.

Only five boats remain, down from nearly one thousand at the turn of the twentieth century. The five include a few that are registered with the National Trust as “national historic places,” and together were named in 2002 as one of the eleven most endangered American land- marks. Most skipjacks hail from Tilghman Island or Deal Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore:

Thomas Clyde (built in 1911)—Captain Lawrence Murphy, Tilghman Island

Hilda M. Willing (built in 1905)—Captain Barry Sweitzer, Baltimore

City of Crisfield (built in 1949)—Captain Art Daniels, Deal Island

Fannie L. Daugherty (built in 1904)—Captain Delmas Benton, Deal Island

Somerset (built in 1949)—Captain Walton Benton, Mt. Vernon, Maryland

To some an anachronism, to others a symbol of wind power and sustainability, the remaining skipjacks will only survive as long as timbers and captains endure—and the oysters live. Art Daniels, the dean of the fleet, is eighty-eight years old. Other captains are in their late fifties and sixties, and can’t sail on forever. No young captains are coming up though the ranks.

Aging boats and men are just half the problem. Overfishing of oyster beds by mechanized patent tongers, who compete with skipjacks for the reefs, is another threat. Annual oyster harvests in Maryland now average less than 200,000 bushels, just a fraction of the 15 million bushels caught in 1884 and only ten percent of the 2-million-bushel catches that were typical from the 1920s through the 1960s. Besides modern gear, the oyster stocks are imperiled by two oyster diseases, MSX and Dermo, which have been ravaging shell- fish beds since the late 1950s. Pollution in the form of silt from farm fields chokes the beds, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus lead to decreased oxygen levels on oyster habitat. The combined effect is a reduced oyster population only one percent of nineteenth-century levels.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the skipjack fleet is the mismanagement of the resource by the State of Maryland. The captains have always depended on a state-funded seed program to plant the beds with next year’s crop. Two years ago, the program was abandoned. Also, the state recently allowed power dredging aboard modern workboats, thus reversing the 1865 sail-only law that had brought skipjacks into existence. The modern gear is more efficient. It is their inefficiency that enabled skipjacks to preserve oyster stocks and to sail so long.