For weeks this fall, even as St. Mary's County celebrated the beginning of oyster season with festivals and contests, Tucker and Agnes Brown couldn't find oysters. Most days, the stainless steel sinks and tables inside their shuck house were shining, untouched.
Leaves yellowed and crab apples fell, and often the radio played country songs to no one, echoing through the empty cinderblock building.
"We're dead in the water," Tucker Brown said.
The decline of the region's oyster population has changed life on the water, but the Browns keep looking ahead. Maybe the government will bring in a new kind of oyster that can survive in the bay. Or maybe, once again, they'll think of something new with which to patch their business together.
For decades, the Browns, like most watermen, have adapted as diseases, pollution and commercial fisheries have taken their toll on the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. Oysters, an important filter for the water and once the mainstay of the region's fishing industry, have been decimated, their numbers dropping to historic lows.
In the 1970s and '80s, before diseases started their rampant spread through the bay, the average harvest reported to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was more than 2 million bushels. This year, DNR officials expect about 15,000. Just a few years ago, there were thousands of people oystering in Maryland; this year, they expect fewer than 150.
In 1987, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission issued more than 2,000 licenses for oystering; in 2003, it issued about 300. And on the Potomac -- famous for its Oyster Wars five or six decades ago, when shots were fired over fishing rights and fast boats slipped past the authorities at night -- little or no harvest is anticipated this year.
The effects are deeply felt in St. Mary's, where so much of life once revolved around oysters. Generations of watermen worked long winter days gathering them; shuckers spent nights cracking them open; families scalded, fried, steamed and ate them.
At the Blessing of the Fleet, where for decades St. Mary's residents have marked the beginning of the season, there were hardly any workboats to sanctify this year. And at the recent St. Mary's County Oyster Festival, which draws thousands and crowns a national shucking champion, organizers had to ship in shellfish from Texas and Louisiana.
In the past two years, the Browns have shifted more and more to buying from the Gulf of Mexico. This year, even the gulf couldn't fill their early orders after heavy rains closed some oyster beds.
By early next year, state and federal agencies expect to complete research on restoring the native oyster to the Chesapeake Bay. The studies will also examine the potential impact of introducing a new species of oyster that appears resistant to the diseases.
Some scientists worry they won't have answers that quickly, but the Browns are tired of waiting. "If something goes wrong, what's any worse than what we've got?" Tucker Brown asked.
He said if the scientists don't start putting the non-native oyster into Maryland waters soon, someone else could throw some overboard.
"We have to try to make it work," he said. The bay needs oysters. "When one part of it dies, you have to figure out, how am I going to get to another part?"
That's how it's always been in Avenue, a St. Mary's neighborhood with stacks of just-chopped firewood, sheds, wheelbarrows and tarps. St. Patrick Creek curls around the Browns' land, with family and friends living along both shores. People remember favors there.
Tucker Brown grew up a waterman in a family of watermen, and in his 67 years, he said, he's just about tried it all.
He's fished. He's eeled. He's dropped pots for crabs. He's helped move seed out of hatcheries to oyster bars, and he's kept a hand in the Maryland Watermen's Association. He's hopeful about aquaculture.
His wife and their three daughters all worked on the water at times, and they still help keep the business going. Some years ago, the Browns started selling razor clams for bait. Then they redid his father's old fish house for shucking and packing oysters.
Then came the fire.
Tucker and Agnes Brown awoke at 2 a.m. one night two years ago to banging on the bedroom window: A shucker coming to work saw flames. It was the day before Thanksgiving, the beginning of their busiest season, and the shuck house burned down, leaving piles of blackened oysters.
That morning they sat down with their family at the kitchen table and asked whether they should give it another try.
"We knew there was no looking back," Agnes Brown said.
"Where was I going" to go? Tucker Brown asked. "Where was I going?"
So the family dragged away melted plastic buckets and charred shreds of insulation that day, and neighbors and friends helped them rebuild that winter.
But out on the water, the oysters have kept dying.
"It started to dwindle down, and then it just, like -- dropped," said Kim Beveridge, 38, the Browns' middle daughter, who works with her parents in the shuck house. "It dropped so bad. Suddenly, nobody had it. Dad wasn't able to fill his orders."
This year, even the harvest of gulf oysters was stalled by storms.
"We're desperate," Agnes Brown said one morning this fall when people kept calling and knocking on their door, looking for oysters, and the couple spent much of the night driving to deliver bait. "Some days I sit here, I don't want to do this anymore. . . . But you know what's behind you. Just look ahead. . . . You find something else to take its place."
Finally, this week, they got a shipment. On Wednesday morning, shuckers stood on wooden boxes, spraying mud as they pried open oysters, dropping the slippery meat into dripping pails. Beveridge shoveled ice around jars of sealed oysters. Toogie Copsey of Mechanicsville, who works for the Browns, smashed shells down a metal chute with a long pole, clearing space to shuck some more.
Tucker Brown pulled off his rubber apron and gloves to check on the empty shells pouring out as his wife walked in with a clipboard of orders. For now, they're busy. And just in case, they're thinking of ideas for a new business -- another try.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.