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Ralph C. Hammer, 92, expert on bay's oyster population


Ralph Curtis Hammer, a noted shellfish biologist who led the old Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission's efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay's dwindling oyster population, died of Alzheimer's disease Sunday at Genesis ElderCare-The Pines in Easton. The Centreville resident was 92.

Mr. Hammer was born in Franklin, W.Va., and raised in Cumberland, where he graduated from Allegany High School in 1933. He earned a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1940 and a master's in 1942 from the University of Maryland, College Park.

In 1941, he began his career working for the state Department of Research Education and Development at Solomons Island.

Mr. Hammer began sounding the alarm on the Chesapeake Bay's oyster woes when he told The Evening Sun in a 1947 interview that the future of its oyster population was in doubt because of uncertainties in the state's oyster regeneration program.

"The likelihood that nature alone can repopulate the bay is only remotely possible in the far distant future, if ever, with the continuance of a free fishery system," he said in the newspaper article.

"State management can and has grown oysters at a reasonable cost. The practical and biological aspects of oyster culture are advanced sufficiently to initiate and maintain production, but in spite of these advances the problem of restoration of this potentially valuable resource still remains in doubt," he said.

In 1948, he joined the Tidewater Fisheries Commission and eventually headed the state's oyster-farming program that included growing seed oysters.

"The philosophy formerly was to put shells out on public bars and wait for nature to take its course. Many times the plantings were successful, but sometimes they were not," Mr. Hammer told The Sun in 1959. "The difference is we're now going to put the shells where the oysters are, and transplant them after baby oysters are attached to them."

Mr. Hammer focused his initial efforts on Holland Straits, the St. Mary's, Honga and Little Choptank rivers, Tar Bay, Harris Creek, Broad Creek and Eastern Bay - areas he determined were rich in oyster production.

"He was the ambassador of the Chesapeake Bay and an oyster expert who went all over the place lecturing. He was very well-known and when he retired, the Department of Natural Resources was sorry to see him go," said Roy W. Rafter, a retired Natural Resources Police superintendent.

"I'd take him out to Tangier Sound, for instance, and he'd place bags of spat onto bags of wired oyster shells. It was amazing, he knew the whereabouts of every oyster bar in the state," Mr. Rafter said.

"He was one of the premier Chesapeake Bay environmentalists of his day and long before there was a Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He was involved in all of the early bay conservation efforts, in addition to the oyster replenishment program," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

In 1961, Mr. Hammer left the commission to become project manager for C. J. Langenfelder & Son Inc. Contractors, to head its oyster shell-dredging program. The shells were used to form new oyster beds.

In 1965, he became natural resource specialist, and two years later executive secretary of the old state Board of Natural Resources, which became part of the present-day Department of Natural Resources, created in 1969 by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel.

"There were many agencies that formed DNR, and Ralph, who was such a good diplomat, helped in the transition," Mr. Sieling said.

When Mr. Mandel appointed former Gov. J. Millard Tawes as the new department's first secretary, Mr. Hammer was named his chief assistant.

Mr. Hammer spent the last seven years of his career as DNR's chief extension agent and retired in 1977.

For his long service in bay conservation efforts, he was awarded the Maryland Wildlife Foundation's Conservationist of the Year Award in 1973.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Hammer worked as a commercial crabber, then took up beekeeping - giving away his honey to family and friends.

Mr. Hammer volunteered with Hospice of Queen Anne's County. He was a member of Centreville United Methodist Church, the Queen Anne's County Farm Bureau and the Kent Island Idlers, a social club, and enjoyed fishing and traveling.

Services will be held at 3 p.m. today at Fellows, Helfenbein and Newnam Funeral Home in Centreville.

Surviving are his wife of 64 years, the former Mary Margaret Lible of Easton; a son, Dr. Edward C. Hammer of Centreville; two daughters, Holly H. Hagelin of Stevensville and Christine H. Wolff of Nags Head, N.C.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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