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The Bay’s Changing Oyster Culture

Donald Sheckells: Stuck on oystering

If oystering has been your life for more than 40 years, what do you do when age catches up with you?
    If you’re Donald Sheckells, you’re still working.
    The Shady Side waterman no longer braves winter on the water to harvest oysters. But he’s still shucking and selling them.
    Oystering has been his life’s work. So he’s stayed with it in all weathers, from gentle Indian summers to cold, wind-driven, rainy days. Sometimes he’s had to plow through icy waters. “You get used to it,” he says, when people ask him — as they do again and again — how he can stand the cold. “You have to love it.”
    He’s stayed with this back- and heart-breaking line of work through the changes that have turned 60 bushel-per-day catches to one- or two-bushels-a-day for a single boat. From plenty to scraping the bottom of the barrel, he’s stayed faithful. In bad oystering years, fishing and crabbing have evened out his livelihood. So he’s not about to leave oystering now, when the tide just may be turning.

Invested in the Water
    Oysters were a man’s for the taking in the 1960s, when young Donald Sheckells was sorting out what to do with his life.
    Out of Southern High School, the 18-year-old was drafted into the U.S. Army. Vietnam was heating up, and his three-year tour included a year there, mostly, he says “staying out of harm’s way in the Signal Corps.” Stateside, he spent his leave time back home, working with Capt. John ­Nowell, learning the waterman’s craft.
    “Once I got the mud between my toes,” Sheckells says, “that life gets hold of you.”
    At least part of Nowell’s lure must have been his pretty daughter, Margaret. In 1968, the high-school sweethearts were married.
    In 1969, Sheckells took advantage of a three-month early-out from the Army that enabled veterans to start their new careers. He never looked back.
    Capt. Nowell had passed away, but Sheckells found full-time work right in Shady Side with Capt. John Nieman, who Sheckells reveres as “the best oysterman in Anne Arundel County.”
    By 1972, Sheckells was ready to strike out on his own. He bought a boat built by Kenny Nieman, brother of Capt. John. A lifelong investment, the hull cost about $1,800 with finishing equipment extra. A waterman starting out nowadays would be paying upward of $80,000 for the ready-to-finish craft alone.
    Sheckells christened his boat Don Mar, combining his and his wife’s names, Donald and Margaret. Don Mar has been his workboat ever since, overhauled and “glassed over” — layered with tough fiberglass in 2007-2008.
    All these years, Sheckells has toiled as a waterman, crabbing, fishing and harvesting wild oysters. The only help he has is an occasional hand to lift the pots and bait the lines in crabbing season. Oystering has always been his solo effort.

Changing with the Tides
    In about 2009, Maryland shifted its commercial oyster policy from wild harvesting to oyster farming. In earlier years, the state had supported commercial oystering by seeding oysters onto shells for later harvest. A surcharge on all watermen’s Tidal Fish Licenses helped pay for the partnership and watermen were paid to do much of the work.
    The policy shifted when the Maryland Oyster Commission determined that both our state’s oyster goals — a clean Bay and a healthy oyster economy — were stalling. Under the new order, wild oysters would primarily save the Bay; eating oysters would come from aquaculture. More oysters from both sources should help filter Bay waters. Restoring both the environment and the economy is a tall order, and the plan was a gamble. For watermen, that gamble was life-changing.
    Like many other watermen, Sheckells held a river bottom lease for depositing oyster shells. To keep his leased bottom, he had to invest in growing oysters. He wasn’t eager to change, but he acquiesced in order to hold onto his West River lease. The future of the Bay motivated him as well. “We need to clean up the water,” he insists.
    To get started, Sheckells borrowed money from Marbidco, an Annapolis firm specializing in lower cost loans for Maryland agriculture. With part of that loan, he purchased a load of oyster shells from Harris Crab House on Kent Island and dropped them on his leased bottom in preparation for receiving baby oysters.
    The next step would be to collect the three bagsful of oyster spat — some two million babies — that Maryland was providing gratis to new farmers. But Sheckells had a heart attack before he could get that far. He was allowed to hold onto his leased river bottom, at least temporarily, due to his health. He never used all the loan money for which he’d been approved.
    Today, he continues to purchase and deposit oyster shells on his river bottom lease. His monthly reports to the state keep his leased bottom. Shells today cost about $2 per bushel; before aquaculture, the bushel price was 75 cents.
    Knocked out of oystering full-time, Sheckells wasn’t down for the count.
    He had a fallback position. Along with working on the water, he had been shucking and selling oysters for more than 20 years. As his health gradually improved, he took up shucking.
    He isn’t happy that he can’t do all that he used to. “I have no choice,” he says. A November bout of bronchitis kept him in bed for over a week. Wife Margaret was sick at the same time, so they couldn’t do much to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
    Sheckells got back on his feet just in time to shuck oysters for the holiday season, the busiest time of the year.

Stuck to Oystering
    For the first time in his life, Sheckells drives to his harvest by land, not water. His shiny white Dodge truck replaces Don Mar as he makes trips across the Bay Bridge, grumbling about the increased toll, to buy oysters at Harris Crab House. He makes as many trips as he needs to keep his regular customers happy.
    Most of the oysters are wild-harvested in the Chesapeake, from Bloody Point to Smith Island.
    Around the Choptank River and in places like Tangier, Crisfield and Deal Island, Sheckells says “watermen have cleaned up the waters by power-dredging the oyster beds. Now they’re having a good wild harvest.” He estimates that more than 100 oystermen are working the Bay waters abutting the Eastern shore counties of Talbot and Dorchester.
    Back home in Shady Side with his Eastern Shore oysters, it’s business as usual. Sheckells’ property encompasses 135 feet of bulkhead and a 200-foot pier, where Don Mar is docked. His shucking trailer sits in his back yard, abutting Parrish Creek. The trailer is fitted out with a big work surface as well as sinks, containers and refrigerator. Here he works from October to May, and here customers come to pick up their orders.
    Oysters don’t shuck willingly. But Sheckells knows them inside out. He dons a rubber glove on one hand, and covers just the index finger of his shucking hand with rubber, then picks up his first oyster. He knows how to find the oysters’ “sweet spot,” its lip in front.
    “Just stick the knife in there,” he directs, and keep going to the middle where you’ll find a round muscle or “heart,” as he calls it. Then work the knife around till the muscle gives and work it a bit until the shell pops open.
    Once he pries open the shell, he drops the oyster into water for collecting. When his pan is full, he rinses the oysters, then puts them into the jars he sells.
    Commercial shuckers, he claims, shower off the oysters, blowing them dry. Blowing air on them puffs up the oysters to look bigger and eliminates their salty taste.
    His oysters retain their native taste, which Sheckells says “keeps my customers coming back.”
    He’s considered selling Don Mar, but “not yet.” He’ll have another season of crabbing coming up — if, he says, “there are some to catch this year.”
    He speaks of moving from his roomy house in Shady Side and trying to find a smaller place with “no steps to go up and down.” But his wife is reluctant to move on, as she’s always lived in this spot. He, too, would sorely miss life, as well as work, on the water.
    It’s not been an easy life, but it’s a lifestyle hard to leave behind.
    When he was starting out, old-timers urged him to “think twice about working on the water,” Sheckells said. They could see that the Bay was becoming depleted.
    Today’s old-timers, himself included, echo that sentiment.
    Younger people are not much interested in taking up the demanding life of the waterman. He’s pinning his hopes for the future on people like his neighbors Rob and Terry Witt, who are working hard to make a success of oyster aquaculturing. [Read about them in the November 21 story “Farming the Bay” at www.bayweekly.com/node/19880.]
    “I wish them luck,” Sheckells says. He hopes that they soon are selling their farm-raised oysters.