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Working Winter’s Waters

Oystering takes muscle, hope and political savvy

“I have to catch ten bushels a day to pay bills and put something away,” says oysterman Ryan Mould, at left sorting the catch with his mate Mike. Patent tonging with a hydraulic wench, watermen like Mould are allowed up to 15 bushels a day, five days a week. “Right now we get $48 a bushel,” Mould says, “so do the math.”

It’s still dark when I park my car at the public boat ramp in Solomons where I am to meet Ryan Mould, who drives 46 miles from Shady Side each weekday to oyster on a public bar below the Solomons Island bridge. As I walk out on the pier, the lights of four or five boats are hovering over the oyster bars, drifting slowly. At 7:05am I see the lights of Aquaholic approaching the pier to pick me up. Like all the others oystering this day all over the Bay, Ryan and his mate, Mike, will start at daylight, 7:21am.
    At 7:20 I’m watching five boats setting their patent-tong rigs to drop into the Patuxent River in the next 60 seconds.

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Mould, 26, is a fulltime waterman. He crabs in the spring and summer, oysters and gillnets perch in the winter. He started crabbing when he was 17 and in 2016 bought Aquaholic from a waterman in Cambridge. He spent last year turning her into a patent tong oyster boat. He also celebrated his first wedding anniversary with his wife, Ashley, a schoolteacher in Anne Arundel County, where they bought their first home.
    “Ashley doesn’t see the money coming in, only going out, but I tell her that I need all my stuff to do what I do,” Mould tells me. “We also don’t see each other much because I go to bed early as she studies or grades papers, and I leave before she gets up. Heck, with oyster season we can only work Monday through Friday so that means weekends are with Ashley. Then I get on her nerves and may go gill net fishing for perch.”
    Watermen with a license, like Mould, can harvest 15 bushels a day by patent tonging with a hydraulic wench. Other oystermen dive for oysters, and some hand tong; they, too, can keep 15 bushels a day. Skipjacks under sail or power can harvest 30 bushels a day.
    “Hand tonging is a dying profession unless you are on the rivers where only hand tonging is allowed,” Mould says of the oldest method of oyster harvesting. “It takes too long to catch your quota, if you can at all. Most young guys who come into oystering will use a patent tong rig.”
    An oyster license surcharge on a commercial fishing license is $300 per season per person, paid to Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Surcharge dollars are used for shell and seed to build public oyster bars.

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The boats are working a bed in 75 to 80 feet of water because the oysters in shallow water have died due to the parasites MSX and Dermo, which attacked Bay oysters more than 20 years ago.
    The first haul brings in about six oysters and an equal number of “boxes,” shells with no live oyster. It goes this way until the first bushel basket is full at 8:04am.
    “It took about 30 minutes to get the bushel,” I say.
    “That’s the target, 30 minutes,” Mould replies.
    He hopes to have their 15-bushel limit by 2:30pm. They must stop oystering, by law, at 3pm. Aquaholic has been getting the quota most days, but if it is windy the catch is only eight to 10 bushels.
    “That’s why we work the river, so that we can get a full five-day work week. If you’re out on the Bay, it’s just too rough,” he says.
    Economics also rule out harvesting in the open Bay.
    “Plus, I have to catch ten bushels a day to pay bills and put something away,” Mould says. “I gauge one-third of the money for me, one-third for the boat and one-third for help and other expenses. Right now we get $48 a bushel wholesale at the dock, so do the math.”

    Mould has just learned to do the math. This is his first year of oystering.
    “I learned to do this like I did crabbing and fishing — by trial and error. And a hell of a lot of error! If you learn on your own, you make mistakes. You also have to work a lot harder to be successful,” he says.
    Oystering around us are Eric Cantler and his sister, Diana, on the Emily E; their father, Eric Cantler Sr., on Pretty Work; Samantha and Chris Barnett on Criminal Intent; and two other boats, Sandy Bottom and Honey Don’t.
    “If these boats stick together, we can put a little pressure on the buyers to keep the wholesale price up,” Mould says. “This is a business of supply and demand. Right now we have strong demand and not a lot of supply.”
    A couple of years ago, more than 30 boats might be working the River. Now there are half because, Mould says, “some watermen just gave up.”

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As Mould talks and works, he keeps his eyes on the tong, on the GPS to make sure the boat is drifting on the edge of the oyster bar, and on the other boats close by. His hands and feet are in constant motion steering the boat, hauling, opening, closing and dropping the tong, and then culling. Legal oysters measure no less than three inches. Culling sorts out smaller oysters and boxes for return to the water.
    Mike, his mate, is moving through shell, cleaning and measuring each live oyster he finds. Mud and water cover their foul-weather gear, and they keep moving.
    “We don’t really feel the cold too bad because we’re moving and concentrating all day,” Mould says.

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Mould looks out for the future of his livelihood and industry as vice president of the Anne Arundel Watermen’s Association. He also spends most Monday evenings at meetings of the Watermen’s Caucus.
    “We have to address legislative and regulatory issues and be on our toes all the time, or the bureaucrats and politicians will put us out of business,” he says.
    Oystermen like Mould who harvest in the wild are getting squeezed on every side. Oysters, as everybody knows, are scarce.
    He expects scarcity will be the rule for this year’s harvest. Oyster biologists agree, estimating a decline to 383,000 bushels in 2016-’17. The specific cause goes back to 2012, when baby oysters failed to thrive.
    Preserving Crassostrea virginica has led to more sanctuaries over the last decade, and less water for watermen to work.
    About 300 to 400 bars can be harvested, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But the majority of the harvest comes from two to four dozen bars per year.
    “We have a big problem with sanctuaries and not enough public oyster bottom,” Mould says. “And we always have concerns about crabbing and fishing regulations because of pressure from environmental groups and others.”
    As well as hard-pressed, oystermen in the 21st century feel pretty friendless as their adversaries want to close off the Bay and rivers to wild harvest and push more oystermen to go to aquaculture.
    With planting seed oysters by the millions and creating new oyster beds — plus cleaning up the water— oysters may have a productive future. They’ve got a lot to offer: contributing to water quality, satisfying consumers who want wild oysters and supporting the native Maryland tradition of oystering.

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The fog has been so thick that visibility is down to about 100 yards. We can’t see the Governor Johnson Bridge at all, and we’re hoping this fog burns off quickly. Mould shows me a small oyster, under the legal three-inch size.
    “The large oysters are the victim of MSX and Dermo as you can see, but this little oyster will come along and be a good sign for next season. I hope. It’s the same way with crabs; a lot of little crabs in the winter dredge survey means we should have a good upcoming season,” he says. His characteristic smile widens as he looks at 13 bushels, the day’s harvest.
    As I leave the men and women oystering on a nice winter’s day in January, I can’t help but reflect on the thread of optimism and hope I’ve seen in my 35 years working with the watermen.
    As Mould said an hour earlier, “This beats driving to D.C. every day, no matter how cold or dirty it is.”