Bay Journal

Some watermen using ‘skipjack’ loophole to dramatically increase oyster catch

  • By Rona Kobell on March 01, 2015
Skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay. (Dave Harp)

When the Maryland Department of Natural Resources began getting calls from watermen seeking to register skipjacks for oystering, they were excited that an old way of life was coming back to Maryland waters.

But that’s not the case. They’re actually taking advantage of a loophole that allows them to simply put a mast on a motorized boat and thereby qualify for the increased harvests allowed for skipjacks.

Maryland natural resources law allows for an oyster dredge boat to be pushed two days a week by a “yawl” boat, which is any kind of motorized boat. As long as the boat in question has a mast, that boat can be pushed by the yawl boat — often a Carolina skiff or other motor boat — and technically meet the definition of a skipjack.

Skipjacks are beautiful sailboats that are an important part of the state’s oystering history. Once, 2,000 of them plied the Chesapeake Bay. But now, the DNR says, only 30 skipjacks are registered with the department, and only seven actively fish each year.

This year, two more boat owners called the department to apply for a skipjack number. A third is in the process of getting his number.  The DNR issues numbers to each skipjack, sort of like a permit, so it can keep track of them. The department doesn’t have the discretion to deny these numbers, as long as the applicants have a boat that has a mast and therefore meets the definition.

The creative interpretation of the law appears to be driven by the price of oysters, which has nearly doubled in two years, from $26 in the 2012 season to $50 this year. A large reason for that has been the dearth of oysters from Louisiana, which continues to suffer from complications related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.

Skipjacks have a much higher limit than motorized dredge boats. On push days, which are the two days a week that the skipjack can be pulled by the yawl boat, a skipjack can harvest 150 bushels. At $50 a bushel, that is $7,500 a day. With four people on crew, plus the cost of fuel, that could mean more than $1,000 a day per person.

In contrast, the limit on dredge boats is 24 bushels a day, or 12 per man.

Mike Naylor, DNR’s shellfish program manager, said he heard about the not-exactly-skipjack skipjacks at a recent oyster committee meeting in Calvert County. Some watermen, Naylor said, were upset that the new boats would take oysters from conventional dredgers.

“These boats have been converted to meet a technical definition of a skipjack in the law,” Naylor said. “Because of that, they will have an unfair advantage over the dredgers, because of the larger limits.”

Naylor said the law needs to be changed, because it was designed to enable real skipjacks. Those old, majestic boats require a lot of maintenance. They were originally used after dredges were banned to make oysters harder to catch, so the supply of bivalves on the public oyster bottoms would last longer.

Later, the law enabled skipjacks to dredge on certain days of the week, in part to keep the skipjacks in business, and as an acknowledgement that the old boats were more expensive to operate than traditional dredge boats. Several of today’s skipjack captains are elderly; some run summer tours to supplement their income.

Dredging under motorized boats for oysters is legal for other boats again in Maryland, but with lower harvest limits, and accounts for much of the oyster catch. Oystermen can also drive, use tongs or use mechanized tongs to catch oysters. The Chesapeake is divided into different areas for different gear.

Joe Hayden, a Hooper’s Island waterman who dredges for oysters, said he wasn’t angry about the creative definition of a skipjack.

“I don’t see nothing wrong with it,” he said.

If watermen are upset about their peers using a Carolina skiff to push around an oyster boat, Hayden said, it’s because “they ain’t got one themselves.”

DNR spokeswoman Karis King said she has been fielding many inquiries about registering skipjacks, so more watermen could be attempting to try using this technique to catch oysters.

At the same time, watermen are pushing the department to open one more “push day” a week, so watermen would have three days to use the yawl boats to pull their skipjacks. A couple of years ago, the legislature authorized the department to add a day, but it hasn’t done so yet.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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