The Eastern Shore is known for its fresh seafood, an industry that is supplied by the Shore’s watermen. These watermen have become a symbol of Chesapeake Bay heritage and hard work. The Wicomico River’s own John Barnette is a fourth generation waterman living in the small town of Mount Vernon, a quiet community with a strong association with the water. Barnette’s boat the "William Moffet" is docked in the Webster’s Cove Harbor, a few miles from his house and soft crab shedding operation. “I started in this business when I was 17” says Barnette. “I had a free ride scholarship to UMES. I tried it for 3 days. I came back home, put my boots on, went down to the river and I’ve been here ever since.”
“A waterman is not a single faceted occupation” says Barnette. Most days he wakes before the sun and is out on the water before first light, being a watermen takes dedication and a love for what you do. “If I only worked 40 hours a week I wouldn’t be able to sit here and talk to you. I would be out somewhere with a tin cup collecting money. It’s not uncommon to put in 80 odd hours a week. If I got paid by the hour I would be right up there with Warren Buffet” he says laughing at that thought.
In the winter, oysters are the main catch while in the summer it’s blue crabs. John compares the summer days to working two jobs. After a long day of crabbing, he will bring peeler crabs back to his shedding tanks to produce soft crabs. “Shedding soft crabs is a 24 hour job. Every 8 hours I have to be in that building, 7 days a week.” Although it seems like a challenging task, Barnette says that raising soft crabs is one of his most lucrative harvests. To stay competitive, John became well versed in the biology, economics, and politics surrounding his business. “There are a few of us that have been able to endure the ups and downs of this industry. Those that are capable have to be well rounded” says Barnette. While the political climate around the river can be taxing at times, people like John aren’t going anywhere. The Wicomico is their home. Barnette described his affection for the river like this, “No one works on the water for the amount of time I have that you don’t love what you do. If I wanted to be rich I would’ve chosen another occupation but there are moments I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
One of his favorite moments on the Wicomico happened last summer when a reporter from Chesapeake Bay Quarterly spent the day out on the water with John for a follow up piece 15 years in the making. The reporter made the observation that things had not changed much in those 15 years since their last meeting but later he was amazed at what was waiting over top of the next crab pot. A pair of eagles, that John affectionately named Gertrude and Heathcliff, sat waiting for the fish they had grown accustomed to receiving once the pot is emptied. He unbelievingly asked if this was a daily occurrence to which John replied it was. “How is the view from your office window? That’s my office. There’s days when it's hot enough to sweat to death. There’s days so cold you can’t feel your fingers. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t trade it.”
A couple weeks after our first talk, I was walking to the harbor to meet John who offered to take me out with him for a day of oyster dredging. At 6 a.m. on a mid April morning the temperature was already 50 degrees and climbing with almost no wind. The water was like glass, reflecting the first bit of color from the sun rising in the horizon. As I reached the boat, John turned over the diesel engine and we made our way out of the harbor. “You couldn’t have ordered a better day out of a catalog” he told me as we approached the mouth of the river.
John has several oyster ground leases in the Wicomico River, which means he alone can oyster on those grounds and in return he must maintain them. One oyster ground is 86 acres but not all of that area is covered by oyster beds. Instead, watermen use depth finders to locate hill like structures on the bottom of the river. “The oyster industry is in an up swing right now, not just in the Wicomico but in the Tangier Sound. We were blessed with an exceptional spat set, that’s when the oysters spawn and the small ones catch on.”
The oyster bed that we are on this morning has been in Barnette’s family since his great-grandfather in 1919. “Let’s just say a lot of effort has gone into this ground.” Harvesting began at first light. Steering from the side of the boat, John operates the mechanical dredge with foot pedals lowering and raising the bucket from the river bottom to the boat. Once the contents are brought to the surface, the dredge dumps onto a table to sort what is a legal sized oyster, 3 inches long, and what is substrate that should be returned to the bottom. John called it a day around noon after bringing in 13 bushels of oysters which he would later sell to a local distributor in Crisfield.
“Most the people I grew up with in this business are gone. I see myself where they were and I don’t see many people behind me. Some are and I’ll do everything I can to help them. At the end of the day I wouldn’t take a million dollars for this experience.”