Journalist/naturalist White (Chesapeake Bay: Nature of the Estuary, 1989, etc.) produces a hands-on survey of Chesapeake Bay’s dangerous and colorful skipjack shellfishery.
A decade ago, when White lived on the Maryland side of the bay, he rented a house on Tilghman’s Island, with its holdout community of skipjacks—sailing oystermen. The author does a fine job explaining the activity: A two-masted wooden sailboat pulls a brace of dredges over oyster banks, taking advantage (or not) of the wind’s strength and direction to work the beds. Like the bay’s two other famous catches, blue crabs and striped bass, oysters are on the wane, prey to overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, disease and regulatory mismanagement—all topics White ably handles as a skilled naturalist. As the author works the boats with them, the old-time skipjack watermen—even ten years ago but a handful, accounting for less than five percent of the oyster haul—fill the White’s ear with stories of the past that give evidence to their enigmatic reputation as part outlaw—they will be the first to admit that watermen are very much players in the overfishing problem—part conservationist. White offers two tales: the history of the skipjack as a lovely boat and a livelihood; and his experience working on a skipjack, with their notoriously thorny captains, the toil and occasional terror, yet also the “all-but-forgotten world of reading the sky and the water, of harnessing the wind to catch your supper,” of the “waterman as part of the ecology of the Bay.” The author also provides gratifying forays into attendant skipjack activities, such as blacksmithing and oyster shucking.
An illuminating, somewhat mournful story of a dying art form.