For years, this island town was known as much for its oysters as for its ponies. Glistening Chincoteague oysters on the half-shell, salty and flavorful, carried the island's name around the country.
Today, the oysters still are delicious. But there are far fewer of them, and the Chincoteague oyster industry is in decline. Deserted shucking houses line the island's eastern shore, and abandoned oyster boats list in the water under the causeway from the mainland.
The Oyster Museum along the road to Assateague still offers slides, clippings and relics of the old oyster days, and the Oyster Festival (Oct. 12 this year) still attracts hungry tourists from around the region.
But where there once were 13 major shucking operations, today there are four, and several of them bring in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay to process because the Chincoteague Bay does not supply enough to keep them in business.
The firm of Conner & McGee, for example, has taken to bringing in oysters from the Louisiana Gulf and the West Coast to supplement its own oyster fields. Working in the oyster industry "is not an easy living," Michael McGee says.
Proprietors of the oyster firms often own other businesses as well. Reginald E. Stubbs, who runs the Island Motor Inn, says he couldn't make a living on oysters alone.
"I've been in the business for 16 years, and my father was in it 20 years before that, and there's not enough volume to keep the houses going. Oysters have really become a high-priced item," Stubbs said.
No one seems sure exactly why the oyster business has faded. Stubbs believes that fewer people today know how to prepare the mollusks, or are willing to take the time to do so. At the same time, he says, they have become a high-priced delicacy, out of the range of lower-income families.
Disease, predators and bad weather also have reduced the supply of oysters. Some analysts suggest that projects by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create pools of fresh water for the wildlife preserve on the neighboring island of Assateague have stopped the tidal flows that once swept in and out of the Chincoteague Bay, nourishing the oysters there.
"When they made the fresh-water impoundments, they cut off the drainoff to the tidal areas. I can't think that's helped production of seafood around here," said motel owner Donald Leonard.
Leonard also is involved in Chincoteague's newest seafood industry and the only one showing much sign of growth: His ocean-going boats are among those that gather large sea clams, miles from shore. These clams, which have to be cleaned and cut almost like a fish, rather than eaten whole like an oyster, now account for more revenue for Chincoteague than do oysters, Leonard believes.
Perhaps 1 million bushels per week of sea clams are unloaded from the 150-foot, 300-ton boats on Chincoteague, dwarfing the catch of oysters, Leonard estimates. Annual revenues are "by far on the side of the sea clam," he said.
Fried clam strips may not be as romantic as a Chincoteague oyster on the half-shell, but residents are pleased they have a source of income to supplement revenue from tourism, by far the island's largest industry.
"More and more people are going into it," said Chincoteague Mayor Anthony Stasio. "This could be the thing that would keep seafood a major factor in our economy."