Back in the late 1970s, when I was a field biologist for the Academy of Natural Sciences, I was asked to help the laboratory acquire a boat for some of its aquatic programs.

Scouring the Eastern Shore, I found a modestly priced Bay-built work boat. I had been given the assignment because of my experience with wooden boats and foolishly believed I was able to inspect her myself.

Her plank and frames were sound and without rot, and I recommended her purchase. What I had failed to consider was the strains of her former use as a platform for a clam escalator dredge rig. This strain twisted her hull so that the fastening loosened and she was in essence, “a leaky bucket” as one colleague referred to her.

Perhaps it was a premonition when the lab staff christened her Trinectes, for the hogchoker, (Trinectes maculatus), a small inedible flatfish common in net trawls throughout the Bay.

The first of her unpleasant surprises, though, appeared in a wooden gear box on her afterdeck. It contained an assortment of junk: shackles, bits of chain, old dock lines and at the bottom — two badly rusted artillery projectiles that were clearly “live” warheads.

One of the rounds had what appeared to be a brass inset near the base, that when rubbed smooth, revealed the date 1898. Perhaps, it was a memento of a very different period in the Bay’s history.

At the time, there was much strife surrounding the Chesapeake’s oyster fishery, which was in decline after decades of escalating pressure.

This conflict had started with the depletion of New England and Long Island oyster grounds in the mid 19th century that subsequently sent fishing vessels down to the unregulated Chesapeake. Using dredges and steam-powered vessels, they literally mined this living resource from the Bay floor.

Cull and harvest regulations were introduced shortly thereafter. But outright pirating by outsiders and reckless dredging as local oystermen tried to harvest as much as their competitors became rampant. This “tragedy of the commons” proceeded with little regard for the condition of the resource.

In James Kirk’s forthcoming book “Golden Light,” the 1870s logbook of a young New Jersey skipper records his first buying a load of oyster seed on the Eastern Shore. His next trip, he merely harvested his own.

Violence soon escalated among the oystermen and a popular folk saying proclaimed: “Get it today! Hell with t’mar. Leave it t’mar, somebody else’ll get it!”

In an attempt to bring some order between Maryland and Virginia oystermen over hotly contested oyster “rocks” or reefs near their respective boundaries, the “Line of ‘77” was drawn across the Bay to separate these states’ beds. Even though Maryland harvested more oysters than its southern neighbor, Virginia got the best of Pocomoke and Tangier oyster grounds, leaving Maryland watermen embittered.

Meanwhile, oystermen wanted to believe that by dredging the beds, they were “plowing the sea” — spreading smaller oysters out on the bottom to free them from competition with shellfish clustered on the reefs where they’d grown naturally. Some early researchers working the Bay noticed that indeed, solitary oysters grew faster than their crowded neighbors, but they also noticed that there were more “boxes” — dead oysters with their shells agape. It was becoming clear that the ancestral reef structures were being destroyed.

In October 1878, at Maryland’s request, Lt. Fransis Winslow of the U.S. Navy began to survey the state’s resources. In some worked areas, he found only one oyster per 3 square yards of bottom and concluded that these beds were being depleted. Winslow warned against taking oysters smaller than 3 inches, the legal market size to this day.

In 1884, 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested; by 1889, it was 9.95 million and harvests generally decreased from then on.

Conflicts escalated as men fought over prime sites and fleets of dredge poachers or pirates roamed the estuary. In the winter of 1889, a dozen watermen were killed on Hog Island flats.

In 1868, the Maryland Oyster Navy was commissioned to enforce the law and reduce violence. It consisted of six sloops, four schooners and two steamers, including the paddle-wheel steamer, Leila, that Lieutenant Winslow worked on.

In 1884, the Gov. Robert M. McLane, a iron-hulled ship named for the former Maryland governor, was commissioned to replace the poorly constructed Leila. (See “Chesapeake’s oyster reefs shellacked by years of dredging,” Past is Prologue June 2001.)

The McLane was armed with a rack of polished rifles and, reportedly, a “lean-jacketed” 12-pound Howitzer in the bow. This gun does not appear in contemporary photographs. Instead, swiveled on a pedestal mount on the boat’s foredeck, is a gun resembling a very long rifle with an unusual shoulder stock. It is clearly not a 12-pound howitzer and was a mystery.

John R. Wennerstein’s book, “Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake” discusses the battles between Maryland’s little navy attempting to police the harvesting of dwindling oysters, and oystermen who felt equally justified in getting their share while it remained.

Even though oystermen erected metal plates strong enough to turn away the McLane’s small deck gun projectiles the gun was often used with serious effect, if only as a threat against the watermen’s rifles and shotguns.

The McLane served in the Chesapeake until the 1930s. Her hull lies abandoned today in Baltimore Harbor, adjacent to the downtown sailing center and the Museum of Industry.

My workshop at Osborn Cove was put together in the 1930s by David Pillsbury Allen, who bought the place from the widow of Albert King, who fell through the ice and died while oystering about 1905.

Years ago, while rummaging through its drawers and boxes, artifacts from the cove’s past began to emerge. One morning, I found what I thought was a screw-on finial from a metal fence. On closer inspection it was much too heavy, and hollow inside with a missing screw closure and a knurled band encircling its body.

I eventually concluded it was an artillery projectile. This was not a complete surprise; one of Allen’s barns already contained a couple of deactivated early underwing rockets from a World War II fighter plane.

Bob Reynolds, a former Bay Program colleague and gun enthusiast, called my new projectile “quite a find” and suggested it might be a Hotchkiss. A repeating gun invented by Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss (1826-85), the Hotchkiss round was widely used in France, Britain, the United States and even Spain, but however did it get to the Patuxent?

A search for the origins of this projectile and its gun led me to Kim Nielsen, director at the U.S. Naval Museum in Washington D.C. A museum exhibit contains a projectile, rusted by decades of immersion in Havana, Cuba’s salty harbor, that is identical to the Osborn Cove piece. Nearby is a small gun, one of a variety of weapons that fired this kind of shell, a one-pounder.

Nielsen shared my interest in the McLane’s mystery deck gun, and was also curious about the projectile. In short order, he contacted experts such as Mark Wertheimer at the Naval Historical Center, who directed me to the web site www.warships1.com

It featured a photo aboard the USS Nahant, around 1900, with three officers lounging around a gun just like the one on the McLane’s bow.

I also learned that my Osborn Cove projectile could easily have been fired from such a gun, based on its caliber. Could it have been a remnant from one of the oyster-related Chesapeake conflicts?

The poor oyster is even more embattled today. My first inklings of the problem occurred while I was a college freshman in 1956. A friend, knowing my interest in marine life, took me to the lab of doctoral candidate Sun Yen Feng, who was studying a new oyster disease discovered by Dr. Harold Haskin in Delaware Bay.

The causative organism had unusual cells with several nuclei, and they’d named it “multinucleated sphere, unidentified,” or MSX. It spread to the Chesapeake and was joined by a second devastating oyster parasite, Dermo. The combined impact of these two organisms has pounded to remnants the population of a once extraordinarily abundant animal that literally shaped an ecosystem.

It was more than four decades later that the source of this plague emerged. A researcher had brought non-native oysters to Delaware Bay as an experiment in mariculture. The oysters, Crassostrea gigas, proved unsuccessful, but their presence was enough to introduce this deadly interloper to the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginicus. (A few years ago, biologists again conducted experiments aimed at eventually introducing C. gigas into the Bay.)

Disease is not the only factor taking its toll on the oyster. A dwindling fleet of skipjacks — symbols of the Chesapeake’s 19th century oystering past— perpetuate the practice of sail dredging. While the dredge is more efficient at taking oysters than tonging, it damages the resource the most closely tied to the skipjacks.

Work done at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science by Joe DeAlteris years ago shows that the James River’s ancient oyster rocks had been scraped down, losing more than a meter in height, during the period of sail dredging. Similar, more recent, studies have documented the same fate for reef structures in both Maryland and Virginia’s Tangier Sound.

As the available oysters diminished, even the advantage given the skipjacks was insufficient. A day without wind, for example, meant no harvest at all for the struggling economics of a maintenance and labor intensive old wooden vessel. To save the fleet, they were permitted to use a powered push boat to move the skipjack and dredge on selected days of the week.

Folk singer Tom Wisner’s lyrics in “Dredgin’ is my Drudgery” encapsulates the rule of the day:

“I plow the sea on Mon-day, We push on Tues-day too,
Wednesday is a sailin’ day and I start missin you…”

© 1972 Tom Wisner

There were 37 skipjacks working around the time that Wisner wrote this song; this season only seven are out “lickin’ the rocks.” At one time, at least 2,500 oyster boats once worked the Bay.

Recently, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources was faced with a politically unpopular statewide harvest expected to barely reach a historic low of 50,000 bushels. Chesapeake commentator Bill Burton writes in Bay Weekly that Harrison’s, a single oyster house on the Eastern Shore’s Tilghman Island used to process that many bushels a year.

To assuage complaints about this poor harvest, the DNR also inaugurated a new policy that permits power vessel dredging to harvest oysters in selected areas. I am astounded, given the lessons of the 19th century.

The justification for power-dredge harvesting is that the disruption will help the oyster population by stirring up the bottom and unburdening the remaining shell of silt, so that juvenile spat oysters have a fresh surface to colonize. It’s unclear why silt stirred up by this operation might not settle directly on these shells or neighboring live oysters, or what will happen to the smaller, culled living oysters that fall to the bottom burying their bills (opening ends) in sediment.

Some voices in Maryland appear to be saying that because strategies for restoring oyster populations aren’t very successful, why not just dredge up and sell all we can get of the remainder? What do the many private citizens who grow out spat as local water quality improvement measures and later plant them on rebuilt reef structures think about that?

If we are, in this industry truly farming the sea, what sense is there to harvest and kill the best of the remaining breeding stock; the very portion in which resistance to the lethal parasites is most likely to be found?

Bay managers recently announced, and approved, plans to introduce about a million Asian oysters (Crassostrea ariakensis). These non-native shellfish will be produced by crossing oysters that have been chemically altered to have four sets of chromosomes, known as tetraploids, with oysters that have the normal two sets of chromosomes, known as diploids. The result is an oyster with three sets of chromosomes known as a triploid — which purportedly cannot reproduce — for aquaculture.

Consider also the source of MSX, brought in by a well-meaning researcher seeking to introduce an exotic oyster in the Delaware Bay decades ago.

Ariakensis is relatively well-known in aquaculture, but its heritage and behavior in the wild has not been thoroughly researched.

We don’t know if it’s a reservoir for other diseases and parasites in the Far East. Breeding many generations in captivity, it’s claimed, will assure a clean organism is introduced to the Chesapeake.

I wonder, at the end of the day, with this old Hotchkiss round sitting on my desk, if this decade might just be the last shot for our beleaguered eastern oyster.

Clamming in the Chesapeake

The heavy exploitation of the clam fishery in the Chesapeake Bay began in the middle of the 20th century, partly as a result of declining oyster stocks in the wake of overharvesting and disease.

As other Atlantic Coast soft clam (Mya arenaria) fisheries became depleted, the Chesapeake became a major supplier of steamer clams.

With equipment capable of exploiting beds to a depth of about 12 feet of water, this fishery was very productive for several years.

A tool of the trade, the clam escalator dredge rig, is a long and heavy conveyer and pump assemblage that hangs off one side of the boat and is lowered so that nozzles attached to its leading edge can jet water into the sediments and dislodge edible soft clams as well as everything else living in the Bay floor.

The clams — and everything else from beer cans to Indian artifacts — ride up the conveyer and are kept or discarded as the clammer chooses.

The escalator dredge caught a lot of clams, but in its wake the entire benthic community was disrupted, grass beds were uprooted and large amounts of sediment created long plumes of turbidity.