First published in The Record, Dec. 20, 2018
Once nearly extinct, Jersey oysters join the jet set
For a species that spent its first 520 million years on earth stuck to the bottom of the ocean, oysters sure love to hitchhike. They’re good at it, too. Every spring they arrive at Steve Fleetwood’s office by UPS truck, millions of baby oysters swimming in a little plastic bag chilled by a frozen gel pack. For a year, sometimes two, they hitch rides on Fleetwood’s boats up and down and all around Delaware Bay. Then they are scooped up, packed into boxes and shipped on refrigerated trucks to New York City, or loaded onto airplanes bound for Paris.
Actually, over the last four centuries – a long time for humans, but just a blink of an eye for an old species like the oyster – this craggy little mollusk morphed from one of the most sedentary animals on the planet to one of the best traveled. Oysters raised by Steve Fleetwood move greater distances with greater frequency and speed than many commercially produced pigs, cows or chickens ever will.
Along New Jersey’s southern edge, where soggy, shaggy bits of land straggle out into Delaware Bay, the plurality of those trips occur on Fleetwood’s fleet of wooden boats, which sail faster now than the day they were built, a century ago.
“We’re going 6.8 knots. I’m just idling,” Fleetwood’s son, Steve Fleetwood Jr., said on a recent trip to harvest oysters aboard the Howard Sockwell, a 65-foot schooner built in 1910. “She’ll go faster. She’ll do nine or ten with a full load of oysters on her deck.”
The elder Fleetwood is the manager of a company called Bivalve Packing, the largest producer of oysters on New Jersey’s side of Delaware Bay. It is located in Bivalve in Cumberland County, once a thriving village of oyster shuckers and boat workers that is now deserted.
With so few people left on the roads, both Steve Fleetwoods drive fast. They barrel onto the property of Bivalve Packing, and often skid their pickups to a stop across the wide gravel yard. One might expect an ancient, plodding species like the oyster to detest all this hurry.
Quite the opposite. From all indications, oysters love it.
A certain kind of stuck
A baby oyster spends its first two weeks swimming. Then it sinks to the bottom, seeking a hard surface. Golf balls, discarded gloves, concrete bricks, Faygo cans and the shells of other oysters all work just fine. When it finds a spot that’s free of muck, the little animal latches on.
For tens of millions of years before humans arrived, this connection was as crucial as it was final.
“If they don’t have anything hard to latch onto, they’re just going to die,” said Rachel Dolhanczyk, museum curator at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, which runs exhibits dedicated to New Jersey's oyster industry.
Sometimes the Fleetwoods seem as rooted to Delaware Bay as their crop. Steve Fleetwood Jr.’s great-grandfather worked the water, catching fish in nets and oysters in tongs, which resemble a basket attached to a yard rake. His grandfather was the last keeper of the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse, where he was surrounded by some of the bay’s richest oyster beds.
Each night the keeper’s wife drove to the shore, aimed her car at the lighthouse, and used the headlights to tap out messages in Morse code.
“They were true watermen,” the younger Fleetwood said of his ancestors.
The elder Fleetwood grew up on oyster boats, learning to do whatever needed doing. He welded steel equipment onto decks, then became a scuba diver to clear snags from propellers.
He farmed oysters the old way. In spring, Fleetwood dredged Hope Creek, Fishing Creek and Liston Range, oyster beds far up the bay. He loaded so many oysters, his deck often dropped below the waterline. The boat appeared to be sinking. Then he’d turn south, sail 30 miles, and shovel the oysters overboard onto beds named Hawk’s Nest, Nantuxent and Hog Shoal.
Rather than resent all this hullabaloo, the oysters thrived. An oyster in the upper bay might take 12 years to reach marketable size, said Michael De Luca, director of the Rutgers University Aquaculture Innovation Center in Cape May. Transplanted closer to the sea, oysters reach maturity in just three years, aided by warmer water and the abundance of phytoplankton.
“You had to catch ’em twice to sell ’em once,” Clyde A. Phillips, a retired oysterman, said in a documentary produced by the Bayshore Center.
When Steve Fleetwood Sr. was still a young man, everything collapsed. Decades of overharvesting plus the onset of two parasites, MSX in 1957 and Dermo in 1991, killed most of the oysters in Delaware Bay.
Oystermen who couldn’t sell their boats abandoned them. Most residents of Bivalve moved away.
The Fleetwoods stayed in business by running two marinas for sport fishermen. The elder Fleetwood farmed salt hay. His son got a job fixing tracks for the Winchester & Western Railroad, a shortline railroad with routes in Southern Jersey, and another job guiding winter bear hunts in Maine.
Neither man considered giving up on oysters.
“You know, I guess I’ve never given that a thought,” said the younger Fleetwood. “I guess as I got older I figured this is where I’d end up.”
Rather than stop, the Fleetwoods and their oysters simply moved faster. The bay’s wild oyster beds gradually began to recover in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, farmers and Rutgers University scientists tried aquaculture, which employs constant manhandling to keep oysters alive.
'Oysters birthed in labs are placed into bags made of fine mesh. Dropped into the bay, the bags protect oysters from predators including conks, cownose rays and tiny burrowing snails called oyster drills.
As the oysters grow bigger they must be hauled from the water, power washed, sorted by hand, distributed into new bags with wider mesh, and dropped back overboard.
“Some oysters grow faster than others,” said De Luca, “and if you don’t have like-sized individuals in each bag, the larger ones will pump more water and out-compete for food.”
Bagging and re-bagging oysters requires constant work.
“The farmers like to handle each bag at least once a week,” De Luca said.
Farmers without boats keep their bags anchored to rebar jammed into the ground near shore. When the tide ebbs out, workers haul the heavy bags by driving ATVs across the muddy shallows.
Bivalve Packing owns plenty of boats. So Steve Fleetwood Sr. performs aquaculture out in the bay, on the same 20,000 acres of bottomland his company has leased from the state of New Jersey for as long as he can remember. He keeps his bags weighted to the bottom inside metal cages, each marked on the surface by a line of rope tied to a buoy. To inspect them, his workers follow the line of buoys the way a landscaper mows grass.
The oysters seem to appreciate all the attention.
“On average, growing time has been cut in half” to about a year and a half, De Luca said.
The elder Fleetwood isn’t sold. So much constant movement costs him tons of money in extra pay, fuel, boat maintenance and gear.
“The guys are tired. The boats are getting beat up. A lot of ’em need work done,” he said. “And they don’t get a break. Nobody gets a break.”
Perhaps a bigger harvest is worth it. Perhaps not. If he doesn't start seeing extra profits commensurate with the extra work, the elder Fleetwood said, he's prepared to stop this constant racing around and return to the bay’s old, slower ways.
“I’m a traditional guy,” he said. “This is a big expensive test.”
Pedal down, eyes up
The water was black when the younger Fleetwood left the dock at Money Island, pushed the throttle forward, and wheeled the Howard Sockwell through the final corkscrew turns of Nantuxent Creek. The sky remained dark for another hour. Finally, a few minutes before 7 a.m., the red pre-dawn light illuminated the water lying flat on Delaware Bay.
“In the summers I’m up every day at 3 o’clock,” Fleetwood said on a morning in early November, one of the last days of the year he could harvest state-owned oyster beds in the middle bay. “I didn’t get out of bed this morning until 10 of five.”
Even this late in the season, state law fixed Fleetwood to a tight schedule. He couldn’t drop his first dredge until the sun poked above the horizon at 7:29 a.m. He might catch 2,400 pounds, all of which must be tucked into the big refrigerators at Bivalve Packing by 3 p.m.
Not a problem, Fleetwood said. But it’s 24 miles by water from the Ship John oyster bed to Bivalve. Even if he pushed the tired old Howard Sockwell to full throttle the entire way, he couldn't afford the extra 2 hours of time and fuel.
Instead, Fleetwood planned to dredge his fill, then sail 7 miles back to Money Island. There he’d crane his oysters onto a flatbed truck, and drive like a demon down the empty country roads back to the packing house.
“Once we hit the water,” he said, “it’s full bore.”
The sun rose. The dredges sank. With his eyes on the water and his three-man sorting crew, Fleetwood pulled up oysters, feathered the throttle, and piloted the boat, rarely looking down at his dashboard of switches and knobs. Nor did he look up to consult the sonar depth finder. It showed the Howard Sockwell motoring along, 14 feet above piles of oyster shells, captain and his crop practicing the art of perpetual motion.
“Everything on this boat is moving at all times,” said Fleetwood. “No grass grows under my feet.”