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The skipjack arose near the end of the the 1800s. Dredging for oysters, prohibited in 1820, was again made legal in 1865. Boats of the time were unsuitable, and the bugeye developed out of the log canoe in order to provide a boat with more power adapted to the shallow waters of the oyster beds.
The bugeye was originally constructed with a log hull, and as the supply of appropriate timber was exhausted and construction costs rose, builders looked to other designs. They adapted the sharpies of Long Island Sound by increasing the beam and simplifying the sail plan. The result was cheaper and simpler to construct than the bugeye, and it quickly became the predominant oystering boat in the bay.
Debate remains to this day about the origins of the name. Some speculate it came from a name New England fisherman called the flying fish, Bonita. Still others claim it is derived from an archaic English term, meaning an "inexpensive yet useful servant."
Maryland's oyster harvest reached an all-time peak in 1884, at approximately 15 million bushels of oysters. The oyster harvest has since declined steadily, especially at the end of the 20th century. The size of the fleet has likewise declined. New skipjacks were built as late as 1993, but a change in the law in 1965 allowed the use of motor power two days of the week. As a result, few of the boats are operated under sail in commercial use; instead, a pushboat is used to move the skipjack, and little dredging is done except on the days that power is allowed.
At one time, the number of skipjacks produced is estimated at approximately 2000; today, they number about 30. The future of the fleet remains in doubt as efforts continue to restore the productivity of the oyster beds.
The skipjack was designated the state boat of Maryland in 1985.