But as soon as the first batches of oysters were hauled onto the iconic oystering boat’s deck, Sweitzer knew his season was over. Of the 250 oysters caught in that initial “lick,” or pass over an oyster bed, 11 were alive.
“The oyster industry in the northern bay is is gone,” he said.
Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources confirmed this week that at least 74 percent of the oysters north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge died in the spring from record-high freshwater flows into the bay from the Susquehanna River. More recent flooding from tropical storms Irene and Lee also might have killed some oysters, which rely on salty waters to survive, said Mike Naylor, the department’s shellfish program director.
Only 2 percent of the bay’s oyster harvest comes from the upper bay, where about 30 watermen dredge for oysters between the Magothy and Patapsco rivers. So the effect of the die-off will be minimal to the overall industry, Naylor said.
But as the only skipjack captain who works in the hard-hit area, Sweitzer says the loss means that his oystering career has ended. And so has a family legacy. After catching barely two dozen live oysters Nov. 2 — compared with more than 100 bushels on the first day of last year’s season — he laid off his crew and put the Hilda M. Willing up for sale.
Poor water quality, over-harvesting and diseases have been killing off oysters in the bay for decades, bringing the population to less than 5 percent of its level in the 1800s, said Mark Bryer, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program.
It will take years of restoration efforts to repopulate the area with oysters, Naylor said. Until then, some species that depend on the oyster reefs as feeding grounds will be affected, including rockfish and blue crabs.
But the monetary loss isn’t even the most heartbreaking aspect of the die-off, said Sweitzer, who is 50. The worst part, he said, is “It’s a way of life that’s disappearing.”
Sweitzer’s father, Robert F. Sweitzer, bought the skipjack in 1947 and worked as its captain for 53 years to support his wife and five children.
The Willing, named in memory of the builder’s deceased daughter, was constructed in 1905, about 10 years after the oyster-dredging boats began to dot the bay. Their high-water mark lasted about 20 years. In all, it’s estimated that about 2,000 skipjacks were made, designed to navigate the bay’s shallow waters where oyster reefs lie, according to the National Park Service’s Maritime Heritage Program.
When the elder Sweitzer wasn’t out on the water, he was repairing the boat, said his son, who remembers watching his father strip the bark off an eastern pine tree in the family’s yard on Tilghman Island to fashion the boat’s 40-foot boom, which supports the mainsail.