43 posts tagged Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
The Chesapeake Bay Program featured this incredible photo essay this week, focusing on Poplar Island. Off of the point of Tilghman Island, on the neck of land shaped like a raptor’s profile that the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum also calls home, Poplar Island has been the focus of intense restoration efforts over the last decade. Like many Chesapeake islands, sea level rise, storm surges, and deforestation took its toll on Poplar, and the island disintegrated back into the Chesapeake over a hundred year period. Old timers can remember the club on the island in the 30’s that welcomed politicians and celebrities (one woman recalled spilling peas accidently down Harry Truman’s neck), and before that, a town of about 100 souls had called Poplar home. It was even a military base during the war of 1812. But by 1990, less than five acres were left. A century of plows, cattle, and the ceaseless activity of wind and water had first broken up the land into three separate islands, and as the decades inexorably passed, those islands dwindled until only shrinking fragments of green remained in the great expanse of Bay.
It was only due to an ironic turn of events that saved the island from total immersion: dredging saved the island from sinking. While federal and state officials sought a location to dump the sediment dredged from shipping channels approaching Baltimore Harbor, the National Fish and Wildlife Service was seeking a new location for protected habitat for birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife. Poplar Island was the perfect solution: use the dredge spoils to rebuild the land mass, which would be planted with grasses and would provide shelter and food for animals.
In this essay, the remarkable progress on Poplar is clear. The fate of many other Chesapeake islands, slowly slipping into the Bay with every tide, is not so certain. But, as Tom Horton says, “They’ll go out with a bang.” And from these photos, the visual fireworks of an rescued Chesapeake island are undeniably evocative, compelling, and a reminder of what we stand to lose as these wild outposts disappear back into the waves.
All photos courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program: http://bit.ly/m7GQZ
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And for an oyster lover, a dozen on the half-shell, plump, cupped in their own vitality, are a lovely sight only to be topped by their taste. However, our appreciation is a fleeting thing. We toss them back at oyster bars until the empty shells clatter without a thought about where they came from or where they’re going. Other than mostly regional names we call oysters by to order them, we don’t wonder much about the mollusks we just consumed.
For the longest time in the Chesapeake, those regional names were a pretty short list, indeed- either ‘Chesapeake’ or ‘Chincoteague’ (the distinction between the two was the milder taste of the former and the saltier tang of the latter). Other places might have ‘Bluepoints’ or ‘Appalachicolas’ or ‘Wellfleets’, each oyster connoting a different point of supply and therefore a different flavor (or ‘merroir’ as aficionados refer to it), but the Bay’s oysters were never really distinguished the way oyster varieties further North or South might be.
Some of the collection of oyster cans at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
That wasn’t from lack of trying- in the 19th century, during the height of the oyster boom in the Chesapeake, hundreds of packing houses established individual brand names and emblazoned them across thousands of metal cans, hoping to coax the public into purchasing their “Sailor Brand” or “Bevans” or “Honga” oysters. But none of these titles really stuck- and throughout the 20th century, when you ordered “Chesapeake,” you got “Chesapeake”- from any old spot in the Bay proper.
Choptank Sweets, grown just a little west of Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
But that’s all starting to change, as the Chesapeake’s oyster industry grows to include aquaculture, a method of raising oysters by hand from spat to market-size. Much like agriculture on land, an oyster farm is a year-round process involving seed, crop management, eradication of pests, and a lot of manual labor.
It’s an approach that in most of the Bay is a new idea, but one that yields a predictable harvest (hurricanes notwithstanding) and a stable income. A handful of fledgling companies in Virginia and Maryland are having a go at the process, growing their crop in floating cages at the water’s surface in prime oyster territory where the oxygen is rich and the algae abounds. They grow their oysters, rather than wild-harvesting them, for a few reasons: aquaculture ventures aren’t subject to seasonal or catch restrictions the way watermen are, the oysters generally grow faster and larger in the cages, and with tending to keep them pretty and regular, aquaculture oysters are all ready for the more-lucrative half shell market.
Oysters in floats from the dock of Marinetics in Cambridge, Maryland
More oysters in the Bay are a good thing- for the environment and for the economy. One of the ways aquaculture ventures are looking to distinguish their oysters from their wild-caught Chesapeake competition is by naming them, like their New England and Gulf counterparts. These farmed varieties, which, as Crassostrea virginicas, are biologically identical to their brethren harvested from the Bay’s bottom, boast whimsical titles like ‘Shooting Point Salts,’ ‘Witch Ducks,’ ‘Forbidden Oysters’ or ‘Pleasure House Oysters’. Evocative of the Bay’s biodiversity, marshy landscape, and the silky, delicate flavor encouraged by the Chesapeake’s brackish water, aquaculture oyster industries hope to distinguish their particular bounty by appealing to all of a consumer’s senses.
Oyster aquaculturist Kevin McClaren on the dock at Marinetics.
The people of the oyster industry are a pragmatic bunch, whether working as watermen or as aquaculturists; don’t let the fancy boat or oyster names fool you. Kevin McClaren, aquaculturist at Marinetics, which produces the ‘Choptank Sweet’ oyster, is no exception. He speaks plainly and knowledgeably about the process of growing and harvesting his oysters, and though he’s clearly an advocate of his own brand, he makes no bones about the work involved in the process and some of the hard decisions he’s made since the venture was started several years ago.
Since oyster farming with floats as a practice is still in its infancy, experimentation is part of the business. Whether to start from your own spat (baby oysters) or to buy it in from a lab, whether to go with oysters that reproduce naturally, known as ‘diploids’, or get the sterile ‘triploids’ that will grow much faster but not replace themselves, or even whether to grow your oysters on the top of the Bay in floats or to manage them on bottom leases instead: it all depends on your business, your location, and what you’re looking to produce. It’s still a wild-west industry, where innovation, a lot of sweat, and not a little self-promotion are key to success.
Kevin’s product, Choptank Sweets, are sold for the wholesale market, destined for restaurants and oyster bars throughout the Chesapeake. Raised on the water’s surface and fed with the natural plankton supply close to the to the waterline, his oysters grow much more rapidly than their wild counterparts 20 feet down or more. Within a year, some oysters can grow up to 3 inches- in contrast to uncultivated oysters, for which an inch a year is more typical. The faster your oysters grow, the faster you can get them legal size (3 inches) and to market, right- so that’s a good thing? Not according to Kevin- who explains that the quickly-grown oyster frequently has a thin, brittle shell, which is a nightmare to shuck and ruins the oysters for the profitable half-shell market.
As Virgina and Maryland legislation grows to encourage more aquaculture ventures like Marinetics, the culture of Chesapeake oystering will change to include these new, experimental techniques and technology. And as some of the shorelines of Bay tributaries slowly begin to encapsulate with oyster floats as protons hovering around their nucleus of docks and posts, new and experimental oyster varieties will accordingly proliferate on chalk-board menus- certainly a good thing for the centuries-old Chesapeake oyster fishery. Because for everyone that agrees that we all want more oysters in the Chesapeake- there are ten more people that agree that they want more oysters on their plate, whether they’re called ‘Chunu’ or ‘Watch House Point’, ‘Olde Salts’ or ‘Choptank Sweets’. Whatever you call their oysters, just don’t call their consumers late to dinner.
For more information on Marinetics and their brand, Choptank Sweets, check out their site here: http://bit.ly/XeOTSb
And this great oyster-lover’s blog, In a Half Shell , offers a fairly comprehensive list of some of the more established aquaculture brands in the Chesapeake, as well as further up and down the East Coast: http://bit.ly/X99N6M
A salt marsh near Chincoteague, VA.
There is nothing more quintessentially Chesapeake than a marsh vista. Over the horizon, the sunrise comes raging and the marsh is on fire: the stem of every reed distinguished in the burnished light, dipping and rippling, a mirror image of the brackish water below. Within this rich environment, only a few feet high, teems all manner and shape of life. Just a cursory glance displays the tiny, pulsing ribcage of a trilling spring peeper, the winking orange flash of a redwinged blackbird, the frantic wittering of all sorts many-legged insect swamp dwellers. Chesapeake marshes are the nursery of so much Bay life, and the livers, too, cleansing through a living grass filter the pollutants we shore folk flush, spread, cloud, and run off the watershed’s land mass.
Wetlands at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. (Adam Langley, SI)
Joseph Stromberg, from Smithsonian Magazine:
In a tidal marsh on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, dozens of transparent enclosures jut above the reeds and grasses, looking like high-tech pods seeded by an alien spacecraft. Barely audible over the buzz of insects, motors power whirring fans, bathing the plants inside the chambers with carbon dioxide gas.
To scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, it’s the marsh of the future, a series of unusual experiments to simulate the effects of climate change and water pollution on a vital ecosystem. “What we’re doing out here is studying plant processes to predict the conditions of wetlands like this one—and tidal wetlands everywhere—in about 100 years,” Patrick Megonigal, a scientist at the center, says as he strides a boardwalk stretching into the 166-acre marsh.
The field study, stemming from an experiment first begun in 1987, is the only one of its kind worldwide that examines how multiple factors such as air and water pollutants will affect tidal wetlands—embattled ecosystems that will become even more important as a buffer against the storms and sea-level rise that are predicted to accompany global warming.
Made from PVC piping and clear plastic sheeting, each open-topped enclosure is a microcosm of a marsh under attack. Once a month, SERC scientists squirt nitrogen-rich water into the soil within the enclosures, replicating the fertilizer runoff that increasingly seeps into bodies of water like the Chesapeake. The plants are exposed to a carbon dioxide concentration roughly twice as high as that in today’s atmosphere; scientists have predicted that the higher level will be the norm by 2100, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels. The gas comes from the same tanks used in soft drink machines. “Our vendor tells us that we use more CO2 than Camden Yards,” Megonigal says of the Baltimore Orioles’ ballpark. “I actually calculated how many sodas that is, and it’s impressive: roughly 14 million 16-ounce bottles.”
Plants, of course, require carbon dioxide and nitrogen. But SERC studies have found, among other things, that some plant species grow more quickly when exposed to higher CO2 and nitrogen, while others show little response, a dynamic that could alter the overall makeup of the marsh. Still, predicting the consequences is tough. These excess nutrients boost plant growth and soil formation, which might counteract sea-level rise. But nitrogen also boosts microbe activity, accelerating the breakdown of biomass in the soil and reducing the wetland’s ability to serve as a carbon sink to offset carbon dioxide emissions.
Lately the researchers are examining a third environmental hazard: an invasive species. The tall, feathery grass Phragmites australis was introduced from Europe in the late 1800s through its use as a packing material aboard ships. In contrast to the native strain of Phragmites, the European version has become one of the most feared invasives in the eastern United States, aggressively displacing native species. In the SERC marshes, invasive Phragmites now covers 45 acres, roughly 22 times more than in 1972.
In greenhouse experiments, Megonigal and colleagues found that air and water pollution are a boon to the European Phragmites. With elevated carbon dioxide, it grew thicker leaves, allowing faster overall growth without any more water; with elevated nitrogen, it devoted less energy to growing roots and more to growing shoots. It was “more robust in nearly every plant trait we measured, such as size and growth rate,” Megonigal says.
In the chambers on the marsh, the Phragmites experiments look like a window into an unwelcome future: a perfect storm of climate change, water pollution and an exotic species poised to hit wetlands up and down the East Coast. A Phragmites invasion, Megonigal says, “has a cascading effect, with implications for food webs and the biodiversity of wildlife overall.”
Workboats are not normally things of beauty. They are built to be tough, capable, and versatile, to weather waves, tide, and wind. They reflect their use, their environment, and their purpose, and their battered white hulls are dingy with salt and a crust of bottom mud. Often they have cobbled-together parts- a car or tractor engine, scrap plywood floors, a gas tank fashioned from a metal casing washed up on shore. They are much used, and much appreciated, but as a breed designed for toil, workboat’s looks are not much fussed over.
There are exceptions, of course, to any rule, and Martha, a Hoopers Island draketail, is one of the most elegant workboats ever to slice through the chop on the Honga River. Built in 1934 in Wingate, Maryland by renowned boat builder Bronza Parks (whose sign over his workshop stated simply “Designer and Builder of Better Boats”), the Martha looks like a lithe debutante who’s been pressed into service in the water trade. Long and lean as a marsh egret and just as comfortable in the Chesapeake’s tidewaters, Martha was built to navigate and harvest the Bay’s great oyster and crab bounty. Great care was taken in her design and construction, which cost the princely sum of $250 during the Depression.
Martha, from the bow.
Martha was mainly intended for trotlining, a method of catching crabs using a long baited line in the water, with a roller on the side of the boat to pull the line up and over, and a dipnet to snatch the greedily feasting crabs from the line as the boat moves alongside. Trotlining was a fairly new technique for harvesting crabs, which only became a major part of the Chesapeake economy in the beginning of the 20th century as the oyster harvest declined. Sailboats were initially and rather inefficiently used to catch crabs, and even the next innovation, power skiffs with 2 cylinder engines, were awkward and not terribly well-suited for the purpose (watermen often had to drag buckets behind them to slow the vessel enough to work the line).
The long lines and rounded stern of draketails like Martha were a marked improvement- much better suited to the repetitive and slow task of trotlining, moving through the water with less eddies and a reduced fouling of the baited lines in the propeller. In the years before today’s modern crab pots were invented, her owner, Captain Willie Lewis, used the elegant Martha for threading the waters of the Honga River and beyond. Loaded with hundred of yards of line baited the day before and empty bushel baskets, he would head out from the protected harbor of Hoopersville long before dawn in search of Bay bottom teeming with the beautiful swimmers to be tempted to the water’s surface with salted eel or tripe.
Martha hauled for restoration, 1996.
The Martha came to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1983, and was restored to her original 1934 appearance during a restoration at the museum’s boatshop in the mid 1990’s. Her relaunch was an occasion for celebration, with members of the Lewis family and other watermen and boatbuilders from the Hoopers Island community in attendance. Memories of her captain, Willie Lewis, his family, and the crabbing glory days of the Eastern Shore during the early 20th century were revisited, with Tom Flowers, a Hoopers Island native officiating over the reminiscing:
“When Captain Willie finished crabbing in the morning (crabs drop off in the middle of the day), he would pull his baited trotline into the boat, usually onto the floor. As he returned to his dock he would bait the line with new pieces of eel or tripe. The old pieces of bait were thrown out and often a swarm of seagulls followed him home. Most of us who have trotlined usually developed calluses and cracks in the palms of our hands and fingers. When that salt would hit those open places, the pain, I can still recall.”
Martha’s working mornings of gilded sunrises breaking over the horizon on the wide open waters of the lower Chesapeake are over for good (as are her afternoons carrying a cargo of scrabbling crabs, salted eel and tripe). But her scrappy beauty, with its perfect harmony of function and form continue to poetically tell the story of watermen, crabbing and Chesapeake boatbuilding to all the visitors who explore the floating fleet at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Martha today is one of the most evocative, arresting sirens from the Chesapeake that once was. It’s quite a legacy for a pretty girl from down on Hoopers Island.