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Volume 5, Number 2
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The MSX Files
Unmasking an
Oyster Killer

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It began as a party on Delaware Day, a holiday picnic on one of the big commercial oyster boats, and two scientists — one at the beginning of his career, one at the end — got to come along for the ride. The holiday was Labor Day. The year was 1958.

To celebrate the holiday, Norm Jeffries, an oyster grower out of Port Norris, New Jersey, would load his best-looking boat with wife, family, and friends and motor them out for a floating party and dress-up preview of this year's harvest. It was a celebration of sorts, this day on the water, an annual "trying of the grounds" before the opening of the oyster season.

Like farmers, oyster growers are gamblers. Jeffries, the son of a Port Norris oysterman, had borrowed heavily to plant oyster seed across hundreds of acres of leased bottom. He brought scientists to the party because he needed to know whether his bet had paid off.

The scientists on board often worked at the Rutgers shellfish laboratory at nearby Bivalve. One was Walt Canzonier, a young graduate student. The other was Thurlow Christian Nelson, a famous biologist with a long list of honorary degrees and awards to his name, as well as more than 125 publications, most of them about Crassostrea virginica, the native oyster that supported profitable fisheries in Delaware and Chesapeake bays.

Now 67, retired and ailing, Nelson took a seat on a trunk cabin as the boat glided south past the grassy wetlands lining the Maurice River and out onto the broad flat reaches of the mainstem Delaware. From his perch on the cabin, Nelson could give orders and keep the young Canzonier busy.

The grad student's job was to fill a bushel basket with oysters, then empty it oyster by oyster, counting the living and the dead. With oysters, the dead come in two forms: boxes and gapers. When you crack open an oyster and find it empty of meat,you call it a box. When you find the oyster hanging open with the meat dead or decayed, you call it a gaper.

The party was over for the entire Delaware Bay oyster industry. A devastating disease was sweeping through oyster beds all around the estuary.

When the first oyster dredge hit the deck, it was Canzonier who was down on his hands and knees culling through oysters. Counting through the first bushel, he began calling out boxes and gapers at a rate that stunned Nelson and every one else on board. Nearly all the oysters were dead."That can't be right,"Nelson snapped."Count them again. "Young Canzonier started over, counting out one dead oyster after another.

Perhaps this was just a bad patch, an odd local dieoff. Jeffries pulled his dredge and motored away to try another oyster ground. When he dumped the dredge on deck, Canzonier sank to his knees again and again began calling out boxes and gapers. Jeffries headed for another oyster planting. Then another. And another. In disbelief, Nelson kept barking orders, calling for recounts.

Norm Jeffries just watched, shaking his head, glancing at his wife. An oyster grower born into the business, he didn't need numbers to tell him they were in deep trouble. Jeffries and his wife had built one of the most successful oyster operations in the region, largely by floating huge loans, first to expand their plantings and later to build a shucking house. Planting oysters, he liked to say, was like putting money in the bank. The more money he put in the bank, the larger the loan he could take out. There was a catch, of course. He had to pay all those deckhands, all those shuckers, all those loans. He had to harvest a lot of oysters.

Finally he steamed across to the eastern side of Delaware Bay, to his prized Cape Shore grounds where he had made his largest, most expensive planting yet. The Cape Shore grounds had paid off well in the past — but not this year. The dredge came splashing up, Canzonier dropped to his knees, and Jeffries discovered there would be no money going in the bank this year. The dying was general all over Delaware Bay.

The party was over — not just for Jeffries, but for the entire Delaware Bay oyster industry. A devastating disease was sweeping through oyster beds all around the estuary. Within two years the commercial harvests were cut by over 90 percent.

Norman Jeffries, the 61-year old oyster grower,lost everything." He went into bankruptcy," says Canzonier. He sold off the business, then the shucking house, then the boats." The creditors took everything he owned — except for one little boat that was listed in his wife's name," says Canzonier. All along the north shore of Delaware Bay, in little towns like Bivalve and Shellpile and Port Norris, local growers and watermen by the dozens lost their boats to the banks and went out of business.

Chesapeake Bay was next. A year later the same disease swept through the lower Bay, killing millions of oysters in Mobjack Bay and in the lower reaches of the York and the James and the mainstem estuary. Within three years oyster harvests in Virginia dropped by 75 percent and oyster growers were getting out of the business.

Out on his holiday boat ride Walt Canzonier had become an accidental witness to a turning point in ecological history. As he knelt on deck counting all those boxes and gapers he was documenting, unknowingly, the first, sudden sign of an oncoming ecosystem decline.

These oyster dieoffs would do more than put a lot of oystermen out of business in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia: they would change the ecology of Chesapeake Bay.

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