WITTMAN — Nick Hargrove maneuvers the white deadrise boat through the dark waters of The Choptank, floating past a blinking green light on top of a buoy. The skies are pitch black this early in the morning, but his best friend, Derek Wilson, sits quietly beside him in the cabin, wide awake.
Wilson, 32, and Hargrove, 34, are some of the youngest watermen in Maryland. And they might be part of the last generation of traditional oystermen on the waters and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.
Hargrove, the owner of Wittman Wharf, has worked the waters with Wilson, his longtime business partner and friend since childhood, for more than a decade. They crab in the summer and oyster from fall to spring, bringing the seafood directly to Wittman’s Wharf seafood processing plant off Howeth Road.
There, the oysters are shucked and crabs prepared, before they are distributed to restaurants and businesses across Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. Hargrove — business owner, boat captain, waterman and seafood plant packer — works seven days a week, sometimes more than 80 hours. The oysters from the Wild Divers division of Wittman’s Wharf are somewhat famous for their delicacy.
Hargrove spots another light up ahead, this one shining bright and yellow in the dark. The captain scoops up a radio mic. “Is that you out there?”
The radio crackles, and a voice answers; “I don’t know, but I’m out here diving.”
Another waterman interrupts: “That’s me, Nick.”
Wilson grins. “We all know each other out here,” he says.
Wilson comes from a long line of watermen. He was born and raised on the Chesapeake Bay, and his late father taught Wilson and his younger brother how to work the waters.
Wilson is among the last few oyster divers in the state — a dying art. Most oystermen use tongs or power dredges, in which they drill into oyster bars to scoop the shellfish out. Diving is uncommon.
“There’s maybe a dozen of them left,” Hargrove says of divers.
Wilson’s whole life revolves around the water, but it satisfies him. He’s never wanted anything else. Wilson lives to feel the breeze on his face, watch the sparkle of the river as he sails across the water, and dive for oysters.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” he says. “I live for it.”
Wilson’s job has been harder lately. In Maryland, oysters are “real political” as Hargrove says, because management of the oyster population — which is estimated to be at fewer than 1% from a peak in the late 1800s — has pitted environmentalists against watermen, with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) playing moderator.
As a result of the tug-and-war, watermen have been vilified for allegedly overharvesting, and their lives and careers altered by steep regulations. The average age for all watermen is 64, but no sector of the seafood industry has been hit harder by regulations and politics than the oystermen, who are thinning out in record numbers.
Chris Judy, the director of Shellfish at DNR, called it “the great decline of oystermen in the modern era.” But the regulations from his agency keep coming.
Starting in the 2019-2020 season, daily bushel limits for oystermen were reduced from 15 to 12, and DNR cut out Wednesdays as an available day, reducing their work-week to just four days. The new regulations join a growing list that has increased significantly since 2009, when a quarter of the Chesapeake Bay area was severed from public fishery waters.
“That’s 30% of our income,” says Hargrove. “You’re selling a bushel for 30 bucks but you can only work four days a week, 12 bushels a day. It’s okay money, but in the grand scheme of things it’s really not.”
Wilson has no other job, and he has a wife and two kids to support. It costs him $4,000 a month to live, and he struggles financially in the winter.
“It’s hard when your four-year-old looks at you on Wednesday morning and says, ‘Daddy, why aren’t you oystering today?’” Wilson says. So he tells his son he’s not allowed. “He looks at me and just doesn’t understand.”
Hargrove stops the boat when, on a monitor, he notices the area is conducive for oysters. The graph’s readings are showing waves of red and yellow.
Hargrove found this spot in the beginning of the season. Once he finds a good spot, they’re set for the rest of the year, so the first part of the season is the most exciting for him.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” he says.
Hargrove slips on a smock and a yellow jacket before prepping Wilson’s suit to the correct temperature. Then Wilson begins changing into his diving gear, preparing to dive down into the murky waters of the Choptank.
Hargrove is busy as he prepares for the haul, but his mind is elsewhere. He’s disgruntled sometimes, even when Wilson is happy-go-lucky.
“There will be 1% every year no matter how many we harvest,” Hargrove complains. “They’ll never be satisfied. So it’s just like they use that number to scare people.”
The oyster population hit a peak at 15 million harvested bushels in the late 1800s. Maryland was considered the largest oyster-harvesting region in the world. There were little regulations then, and overharvesting occurred for decades afterward. About 2 million bushels were reported in the late 1970s.
In the ‘80s, two diseases, MSX and Dermo, killed off a large portion of the remaining population, and a steep decline continued through the ‘90s and early 2000s, with an all-time low of 26,000 harvested bushels reported in the 2003-2004 season.
This sent environmentalists, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, clamoring to DNR for stricter regulations.
“The environmentalists came in and tried to close the industry down,’ said Jeff Harrison, the president of the Talbot County Watermen’s Association, which oversees about half of the watermen on the Eastern Shore. “A lot of people left the water. I had kids, but I steered them away from it, there was just no future in it.”
Environmentalists ultimately succeeded in pushing DNR to establish 51 sanctuaries across the Chesapeake Bay area in 2009, closing off about 25 percent of the waters, though Harrison and other watermen estimate about more than half of the best oyster bars are now off-limits. Watermen also saw stricter bushel limits; a reduced oyster season, which used to start in September but was kicked to October; and, they lost Saturdays as a harvest day, too.
That same year, the industry began to experiment more with aquaculture, or farming oysters with spat seed from a lease of water-bottom. Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmentalists began planting seed in some sanctuaries, where oysters are protected.
The number of harvested bushels rose from 26,000 in 2003-2004 to about 270,000 in the 2019-2020 season — but the regulations have not stopped.
CBF helped introduce a stock assessment to DNR in 2018, essentially a computer model that analyzes data and monitors the state of the oyster population. It flagged 19 areas as being overharvested in the 2018-2019 season, which led to the latest regulations. It flagged only five in the 2019-2020 season, even though more bushels were harvested then. Judy confirmed the computer does not even determine if areas are overharvested, only "at some future time" they will be, with no specificity.
Still, it will continue to monitor each year and DNR will impose more regulations on the industry if needed, he said.
“There could be more, or less,” he added.
Harrison called the stock assessment “another political ploy to slow us down” with a constant analysis of data that is analyzed by a flawed computer system instead of a human being. He sees a rebound of the population himself.
“I work out there, I see what’s going on,” he said. “I figure the science should prove what I say: the science shouldn’t say something and I see another.”
The rise in harvested bushels has not eased concerns from environmentalists, the biggest players of which are CBF and the Coastal Conservation Association. They insist the oyster population is still far below 1% from a peak in the late 1800s, and overharvesting will continue to occur if regulations are not mandated.
Robert Brown, the president of Maryland Watermen’s Association, said that claim is “the biggest falsehood that there ever was.”
“We have rebounded, and oysters are coming back,” he said. “There is no overfishing anymore.”
There is no clear way to determine exactly the number of oysters in the Bay area. The population is measured by bushels harvested, but there are limits on how much oystermen can harvest, creating a paradox.
“They are not even sure what the exact number is,” Brown said.
In a 2019 report, DNR estimated that spat, or oyster larvae, “increased 53 percent”, while disease was significantly down and oyster biomass size was up, “ranking sixth highest in the 27-year time series.”
Allison Colden, Maryland Fisheries Scientist at CBF, said the state of the oyster population is still below 1% of its peak, which is dangerous for the Bay’s health, and the 2019 report is “not a sign that things are on the uptake.”
“The stock assessment found that in 2018, populations had dropped in half. You can’t have a sustainable, or enviable oyster population” with our current trajectory, she said. “Our focus has always been on getting those levels back up. Oysters serve an important ecological role: reducing nitrogen and phosphorus, providing an important habitat for crabs and fish.”
CBF sits on the Oyster Advisory Commission, a group comprised of 60% watermen, the rest environmentalists and other players. The commission was tasked in January with creating a sustainable plan for oysters and the future of the industry in two years.
But the two sides are constantly at an impasse. CBF wants an overall bushel limit for all watermen, instead of a daily one for each waterman. And the watermen, of course, want less restrictions and fewer sanctuaries.
“Only three of them have had (significant) money put into them,” Brown said. “Those other 48 sanctuaries have not had a cent put into them. We should start using them and managing them like a business. We need to plant in these areas, let it sit, and replant it again every time bushels are taken. That’s what we need to do if we want to rebuild this industry. Put it in a rotational harvest.”
DNR confirmed that environmental work for sanctuaries are "concentrated most highly in the regions of Broad Creek, Little Choptank River and Eastern Bay." That leaves out 48 other sanctuaries with little restoration done in them.
Brown compared Maryland to Virginia, where areas in rotational harvests have led to harvests between 457,000 and 635,000, far above Maryland's. Virginia has aquaculture programs that contribute to the count.
CBF maintains that they plant millions of spat in sanctuaries a year, but Brown and other watermen contend so do they in public waters. They do not want to overfish — their jobs depend on it, Brown added.
Yet through aggressive lobbying of DNR, CBF has limited watermen’s ability to reproduce oysters. They have decried dredging into some oyster bars to get shell for reproduction, saying it is not effective and damages fish habitats. Man O’ War Shoal, near the Patapsco River, has become a battleground recently — with environmentalists against oystermen dredging the abundant area for shells.
“I don’t care where it comes from but we need shells,” Brown said. “It helps sustain our fishery.”
There have also been disagreements about the reason for the decline in oyster populations, too. While CBF attributes much of it to overharvesting, and questions allowing a public fishery to exist with little regulations, Brown and many watermen have explained that disease and the Chesapeake Bay’s health play a role.
“Turn the clock back to 1940,” Brown said. “Look at the difference in water quality between then and now. Look at the number of waterfront homes and shopping strips now.”
Hargrove and Wilson feel like they are fighting a losing battle against environmental organizations such as CBF, which has $118 million in assets. They said it’s a constant battle that won’t end until they are gone.
“It’s hard to fight the money,” said Wilson. “They spend more on lawyers each year than we even have.”
Environmentalists disagree that regulations have led to a decline of watermen. Colden said it “might be possible to continue having a fishery” in the future.
AJ Metcalf, the communications coordinator at CBF, said oyster restoration is a “core” part of what they do, and regulations should exist.
“If watermen believe they are the most effective managers of the oyster population, why has oyster abundance declined so significantly over the past 100 years?” he asked.
While Wilson combs through the oyster bar 11 feet down, Hargrove throws a small cage into the water and watches it plummet into the murky depths. Then, he waits.
In as little as five seconds, the cage bursts back up, floating to the top of the water — but now filled with oysters.
Hargrove yanks a rope attached to the cage and pulls it to a table. He dumps the cage and watches the oysters, large and small, muddy and dark-colored, spill out. He sorts them, throwing small oysters (less than three inches) out into the water, and large ones into a red basket next to him.
They work like this for an hour. Hargrove says Wilson can be down in the water for “six or eight hours.” They have a system: three yanks on the rope means hot, while four means cold. Hargrove watches his oxygen levels on a nearby tank,
“He trusts me with his life,” Hargrove says. “And I take care of him.”
After awhile, Hargrove begins working faster and faster, filling up basket after basket. He is no longer thinking about oysters.
“These environmentalists don’t even know what we do,” he says. “They don’t think of us as people. This is why you won’t see another generation.”
Since 2000, approximately 1,000 watermen have paid the $300 oyster surcharge, the best record for licensed oystermen in the state. But only 619 reported harvest in 2019, DNR reported. The industry is worth about $12 million.
Brown said those numbers are extremely low, and he cited a higher cost of living, regulations, and the toughness of the job as factors for a decline.
“In St. Mary’s County, where I live, we had somewhere around 1,500 to 1,600 in this one county” when he was working in the seventies, he said. “Parents are telling their kids to go up the road, go to college, and get a (different) job now. The only benefits you have is you are your own boss, but you got to drive yourself hard to make it.”
There is also a mythos about watermen that has eaten into the public imagination and driven people away from it: that oystermen in particular are bad guys who have decimated oyster populations.
“Every children’s book I read about watermen, they mention something about the overfishing of oysters,” said Wilson.
“It was overfished back in the day, but not anymore,” Hargrove explained. “And there was MSX and Dermos that killed more oysters than watermen ever did.”
Still, the future of the seafood industry — especially for oysters — is likely headed toward aquaculture, in which individual farmers grow shellfish on leased water-bottoms. In 2012, aquaculture reported about 1% of all bushels harvested, but that was 42% in 2018.
Blue Oyster Environmental, founded in January 2019 by Johnny Shockley and his brother, are planning a large transformation of the 10-year-old aquaculture industry. Shockley compared the aquaculture industry now to the poultry industry in the early 1900s before Perdue Farms and Tyson — “not truly developed,” he said, and staying local.
Shockley said Blue Oyster is constructing a plant in Cambridge, which will open in mid-2021. It will be able to mass distribute oysters grown by aquaculture farmers on the Eastern Shore.
“We are proven, and we understand the science and all the practices,” he said. “I grew up on Hooper’s Island and I’m a generational waterman, so I understand the challenges of the past and the need for the future.”
In addition to shucking and distributing oysters, the plant will generate seeds that will be sold to farmers, who will then lease areas of the water from DNR to grow. Shockley said this will create a “new, modern age” that has a place for traditional oystermen.
“We have no impact on public fishery, and it is the opposite of that,” said Shockley. “We are ready and waiting for those folks, who can no longer make living traditional ways, to embrace aquaculture as a way forward.”
DNR has reported about 468 active lease sites in the state, valuing the industry at roughly $4 million.
Hargrove said he will lease areas for oyster growth, but he believes that aquaculture will not save the watermen.
“It’s expensive to get into, and it’s three years before you have anything to sell,” he said. “Not everyone has the resources to do it. It’s two different animals.”
Judy from DNR said he “doesn’t know what the future” of the industry looks like, but the agency is fighting to keep both markets alive because “aquaculture is growing, but the number of bushels produced is far less than public fishery.”
“Our purpose is to protect the oyster stocks and allow for a fishery,” he said. “To balance the three aspects of oyster restoration: public fishery, sanctuaries, and aquaculture. We want to strike that balance.”
Still, the slow decline of traditional watermen in the seafood industry is likely inevitable, experts say, and will be hard met.
Harrison, from Talbot County Watermen’s Association, said he has three children and none became watermen.
“You talk about Maryland, people ask about the crab cakes. When you are sitting out there in the morning on a cold day, more than likely there are watermen working” to get you that, he said. ”There is a need for what we do. But I think one day, there won’t be a public fishery anymore.”
Brown agrees, reporting a similar loss of enthusiasm among his three children. The retired waterman said in 10 or 12 years, there will be few of his kind left.
“If the average age is 64, you can do the math,” he said. “If you want to know where all these watermen went, all you have to do is go to a graveyard.”
Before 10 a.m. all 24 baskets are filled. Wilson climbs up the boat after just two-and-a-half hours, and removes his diving helmet.
He has a big grin on his face as he clambers to the top of the boat ladder. “I was just getting warmed up.”
Hargrove laughs. “Back to the barn.”
The two begin preparations to go back, with Hargrove clearing the harvest table and Wilson removing his gear in the cabin. The sun is peeking out from a hazy row of clouds.
Before long, the motor groans louder as Hargrove pulls the boat away. A few distant boats blink slowly out of sight.
Wilson takes a few minutes after he undresses to watch the blue-green waters of the Choptank River flow by under the mid-morning sky.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Wilson. “It’s tough for the diver. Six or seven hours down there sometimes and I’ve had open wounds, so it changes you — but that was awesome.”
Hargrove, taking the wheel now, is less optimistic than his best friend.
“It’s a constant battle,” he says. “When will the environmentalists be happy? When dolphins jump out of the crystal clear waters of the bay? That’s the thing — what is their goal?”
The deadrise floats into the docks of Wittman’s Wharf around 10:30 a.m. By now, the docks are alive, with white-cloaked employees from the plant moving back and forth across the compound, shouting and pushing carts of seafood around.
Hargrove begins tying up the boat. Wilson jumps off. The two worked just under three hours, but they had reached their bushel limit.
The oystermen were done for the day.