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Legacy on Winter’s Bay, part 2

Frank Gross: When we first started off, we were doing shaft tonging. We had to, we called them “idiot sticks”, we used to tong like this with our hands. We would work up to 26-foot long shaft tongs. We were younger back then, we could stand it. But I can’t do that no more now. So we went to patent tongs after that, which is, these are automatic rigs now we’re working in. They’re more effective and efficient, too, than what we used at first. But at the same time, we got less oysters, we don’t have as many oysters as we used to have. So we just have to go with what we got. That’s all. Yep.

Narrator: Over the years, Maryland has had more of its citizens making its living from oystering than any other state. Regulated by the Department of Natural Resources, oystering season extends from September to March. In Maryland oystering is a public fishery, open to anyone with a license. Fifteen bushels is the maximum daily catch allowed per license.

James Gross: You run it just like a business. This is not playing around, shove the money down your pocket. You run it like a business. There’s market problems, you know, and just basic problems of a everyday small business. My average day a good catch is anywhere from four to five bushels. If you luck up, you can get lucky and catch up to eight, nine, ten. And if the price stays up, you do good.

Narrator: There have been many different types of commercial boats in use on the Bay. Their design origins are vague, and no fancy plans were used to build them. To the watermen, they’re all workboats, platforms from which to harvest the Bay.

James: To a waterman, his boat means everything to him. I mean, without his boat, he’s nothing. This boat has sentimental value to me, because it was the boat my father had, and I probably won’t get another boat. I’ll probably just keep rebuilding her until she just falls right apart. She’s been around for fifty years now, and I just rebuilt her, so she’ll probably be around for another fifty years.

Narrator: In 1957, an unknown parasite, called MSX, or multinuclear sphere unknown, nearly destroyed all of the oysters in the Delaware Bay. The following year it entered the Chesapeake from the South and began to affect the oysters in Virginia. Since then, industrial waste and drought-wracked summers have raised the salt and pollution levels of the northern Bay, causing the parasite to spread northward, into Maryland’s waters. It’s having a devastating effect on Maryland’s oyster industry and the watermen’s way of life.

James: The environment is just deteriorating day by day, and there’s nothing they can do to bring it back like it used to be. Twenty five years ago you could go out here anywhere and catch yourself a whole boat-load of oysters, if you wanted to. Now you can forget that. And there’s no sense anyone thinking that they’re ever going to come back like that, because they’re not. The Bay is just not in that kind of shape anymore.

Narrator: Speaking out on the issue surrounding oystering is another part of the Gross family tradition, a legacy continued from father to son.

James: Now on the water there’s a lot of politics. And I mean you know, it’s not just go out there, do what you’re going to do, and come back in and expect to go to work the next day. Sometimes you’re going to have to go to make sure you can go to work the next day. I mean, the oyster business has declined. I speak for the Watermen’s Association for Anne Arundel County and the state association. You have to go and voice your opinion, at least let them know that you’re here.

Narrator: Today the legacy on Winter’s Bay is in jeopardy. Turning a profit is difficult. Each year, fewer and fewer are going on the water.

Frank: We started as kids, as four or five years old, when we started out on this water. You learn as you go along. You don’t start out here overnight.

James: Basically, as far as I know, I’m about one of the youngest watermen out here right now. I don’t know of anyone coming out of high school right now that would say, “I want to go out on the water.” I don’t think oystering will end. It’s not going to come back by itself. All of us are going to have to keep this going. It’s too far gone for Mother Nature to help right now.


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