The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Community News Network

October 15, 2013

Soaking up the wisdom of the watermen

(Continued)

Most of VanAlstine's crab pots — square metal cages with a pocket in the center for bait — were onshore due to the poor crab season, but we headed for the more open waters of the bay to check on the few that he did have out. When we arrived at his pots, VanAlstine donned orange overalls, work gloves, a long shirt to avoid jellyfish stings and then, with surprising speed, started yanking the pots into the boat.

Only a few crabs scuttled out of each pot. He separated, or "culled," the creatures based on factors such as size and sex and then threw the pot back with a fresh bait fish. (People on longer tours can participate in crabbing and take some of the catch home to eat.)

VanAlstine proudly says that he's known for having some of the best crabs: Each has to pass his "squeeze test," which means pinching the corner of each crab's shell to feel whether it's hard. This means that the crab is mature and thus has more meat. He'll later sell these beefiest crabs directly to buyers at a retail price.

Our next stop was VanAlstine's oyster grounds, which he leases from the state. The oyster population is still less than one percent of its historic numbers in the Chesapeake Bay, but the numbers are climbing slowly due to oyster sanctuaries and habitat restoration.

Each year, VanAlstine buys oyster larvae from the state hatchery, puts them on oyster shells and releases them into his oyster grounds, hoping that the babies, called spats, will grow on the shells and become marketable adult oysters in a few years.

He idled the boat over an oyster ground that he'd seeded earlier this summer and pulled out the 16-foot-long oyster tongs, essentially two long wooden poles with a metal basket attached to the bottom that opens and closes like toothy jaws. VanAlstine stepped up onto the edge of his boat, lowered the basket into the oyster bed and opened and closed the poles with rapid, scissorlike movements, scraping up the oysters.

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