Update: Dwindling Skipjack Fleet for 2011-12

Skipjack Fleet is Dwindling

by Pamela Wood, Annapolis Capital, March 13, 2011

 

A century ago, hundreds of skipjacks plied the Chesapeake Bay, sailing her waters and dragging dredges in search of oysters so lucrative they were called Chesapeake Gold.

SKIPJACK SURVIVORS

Six skipjacks are believed to still harvest oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, although only four have filed monthly harvest reports with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources this season.
• Hilda M. Willing: Built 1905 at Oriole, owned by Barry Sweitzer since 2001. Harvested 946 bushels so far.
• Thomas Clyde: Built 1911 at Oriole, owned by Lawrence Murphy since 1992. Harvested 1,070 bushels so far.
• Fannie L. Daugherty: Built 1904 at Crisfield, by Jim Daugherty, owned by Delmas Benton since 1991. Harvested 1,562 bushels so far.
• Somerset: Built 1949 at Reedville, Va., by C.H. Rice, owned by Walton Benton since 1977. Harvested 1,388 bushels so far.
• City of Crisfield: Built 1949 at Reedville, Va., by C.H. Rice, owned by Art Daniels since 1950s. No harvest reported, but he’s believed to be the only captain still dredging under sail.
• H.M. Krentz: Built 1955 at Harryhogan, Va., by Herman Krentz, owned by Edward Farley since 1990. No harvest reported this year.
Sources: Maryland Department of Natural Resources; “Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks” by Pat Vojtech; Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum; Capt. Barry Sweitzer; Christopher White.

With their distinctive shallow draft and two-sail rig, skipjacks were a unique – and iconic – workboat of the Chesapeake Bay.

Now there are believed to be six working skipjacks left in Maryland. And just four have reported catching oysters so far this season:

Hilda M. Willing.

Thomas Clyde.

Fannie L. Daugherty.

Somerset.

The skipjacks are victims as much of the changing times as the dwindling oyster populations. It just doesn’t make much sense these days to sail big, wooden sailboats to catch fewer and fewer oysters.

There are perhaps a couple dozen skipjacks on the bay, though most are owned by nonprofit ventures and museums or used as pleasure boats or for charter cruising trips.

“It’s been slipping every year for the last hundred at least,” said Christopher White, author of “Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen.” “I’m actually surprised these six men working today are still out there dredging. I would have predicted they would have not made it this long. It just goes to show you how much grit and tenacity they have to keep working.”

White spent time with skipjack captains in the 1990s, working on the boats and chronicling the dying way of life for his book, which was published in 2009.

He recalls being very aware that he was documenting the end of an era while he was doing his research.

In only a few years, many expect the last few skipjacks to be retired from oystering completely.

Capt. Barry Sweitzer of the Hilda M. Willing, for example, has an eye toward retirement and selling his skipjack to a museum.

Capt. Lawrence Murphy of the Thomas Clyde is considering eventually switching to charter tours on his skipjack.

Capt. Art Daniels of the City of Crisfield – the last waterman to regularly use sails while dredging – turns 90 later this year.

When all the captains eventually give up oystering, it will mark the end of the last fishing fleet in America that works under sail.

Already gone are the bugeyes, schooners and sloops that preceded the skipjacks.

Skipjacks were developed in the late 1800s, after Maryland legalized sail dredging in 1865.

Dredging was first restricted to the deep waters of the bay’s main stem. But as those beds were depleted, oystermen turned to the rivers, where they needed boats that could operate in shallower waters.

Thus, the cheaper, shallow-draft, two-sail skipjack – also called a “bateau” at the time – was born.

The first true skipjack may have been the Ruby G. Ford, built in 1891 in Crisfield, wrote Pat Vojtech in her 1993 book, “Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks.”

“The skipjack may not have been as big or as seaworthy as its forerunners, but when it started to be built in earnest in 1896, it had some definite advantages over the dredge boats of the time. Its flat or V-bottom hull and broad beam meant its draft was only two to four feet, so it could dredge in shallower water,” Vojtech wrote.

“This was a real plus since many oyster bars in deeper waters had become depleted by the 1890s. With the introduction of the shallow-draft skipjack, oyster bars in shoal waters were now reachable with dredges.”

The glory days

The fate of the skipjacks is forever tied with the fate of the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters.

The skipjacks’ first few years were the glory days for oysters, with the state’s annual harvest topping 10 million bushels year after year.

Those harvests, however, were not sustainable. Too many oysters were being caught and the population couldn’t replenish itself.

Then came a second hit to oysters: disease.

While overharvesting started the slide, the parasites MSX and Dermo caused oyster populations to plummet further.

“Those parasites together are a double whammy. I don’t know if the oysters can come back from that,” Vojtech said in an interview.

By the mid-1980s, the annual harvest dipped below 1 million bushels per year as the parasites ravaged the oyster population.

Last winter’s harvest was 185,245 bushels, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

State scientists study the parasites carefully and say there are signs oysters may be building some resistance. But it’s a faint hope for a population that’s now just 1 to 2 percent of historic levels.

Add to the disease and the small harvests the fact that the remaining skipjacks are old and expensive to maintain, and things don’t look good for America’s last sailing fishing fleet. A few years ago, a program was set up to repair skipjacks at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. But the money dried up after only a few skipjacks.

Take up the cause

White, the book author, wishes someone would take up the cause of skipjacks, and perhaps start a new skipjack repair program. Funds could come from a new checkoff for donations on tax returns.

Another idea he has is to establish a marketing campaign to promote skipjack-caught oysters.

“I think that there’s a great value in the skipjack fleet,” White said. “It’s a symbol of Maryland and yet it hasn’t been capitalized on very well to the advantage of the state or to the watermen.”

Come Nov. 1, White will travel from his home in New Mexico back to Maryland to crew on a skipjack on the opening day of the season. He wants to be sure next winter to sail dredge with Daniels on the City of Crisfield.

“One of these days, Art is going to put up his sails for the last time,” White said. “And that’s probably going to be the last time sails are used in harvesting seafood. … It’s hard to believe it’s going to be totally gone.”

pwood@capitalgazette.com