John Ewart: For the love of oysters

Local aquaculturist jazzes up the Cape Region
May 12, 2015

The weather is finally warming up, but aquaculture specialist John Ewart is still cleaning up from the long, harsh winter.

It was a rough season for the oysters Ewart tends near the Roosevelt Inlet in Lewes. Many lives were lost – frozen solid and covered with ice a foot thick. The empty shells he sorts through make a harsh, dull sound as they're tossed aside.

Although it's clear that he's sad so many oysters didn't make it through the winter, he smiles as he talks about his work with shellfish.

“When you're in this business, it's like being an artist or musician,” he said. "I'm very much an applied scientist."

Ewart is a well-educated waterman, who looks a bit like a beach-bound Santa, with a jolly smile and a short white beard.

But he's serious about his marine work. And about music.

During daylight hours, he tends to his oysters. On weekend nights, the marine scientist replaces his rakes and tools with a saxophone as he hits the local bar scene, playing soulful tunes with his Shore Jazz bandmates.

He's like the Cape Region's very own Duke Silver, for all the “Parks and Recreation” fans out there. He likes rock and roll, too, though, he says.

The New Jersey native graduated from high school as a musician and a football player, and had never even visited the Delaware beaches until he started working.

“I wanted to be either Pete Fountain or Jacques Cousteau,” he said. On one hand, Ewart says, he wanted to be a professional musician. On the other, he hoped to travel the world and explore underwater life just like Cousteau.

Luckily for him, he's had a chance to do both.

After high school, Ewart attended the University of Rhode Island, where he studied zoology and got his first taste of marine work the summer before his senior year. In the summer of 1972, while on break from his undergraduate studies, he landed a seasonal job at the University of Delaware, with the help of a business tip from his father.

After graduating, he worked on inshore and offshore lobster boats up north, and soon found the chance to travel the world by working on a University of Rhode Island research vessel that brought him to the Caribbean in the winter of 1974 during the Arab Oil Embargo.

"Everything is connected," he said. "There's so many skills you pick up along the way that you didn't realize you had."

He was gaining world experience. For a few months, he was in the First State working temporarily for the University of Delaware, then worked a while in Maine, before he finally returned to Delaware to operate the university's oyster hatchery in 1978. He's been here ever since.

He knew he had to go back to graduate school if he wanted longevity in his career path, he said, and he was presented another opportunity to work at the University of Delaware.

Those early years definitely weren't easy. Ewart spent a lot of time wondering where the next round of grant money would come from and focusing on the master's degree he was pursuing part time at the university. In his free time he'd work on his family's fixer-upper home on Madison Avenue in Lewes and help his wife Diane raise their two toddler and preschool girls.

“There's nothing more of a motivator than having a preschooler and a toddler,” he said.

In those early years, he put his saxophone away. Everything revolved around providing for his family and hoping that he was on the right career path. From construction to commercial fishing to working on a research vessel in the Caribbean, he was quickly gaining experience that would qualify him as an aquaculture and fisheries specialist.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Ewart is now known as a knowledgeable aquaculture expert with more than three decades' experience at the University of Delaware Sea Grant Program, where he's now working closely with hopeful shellfish farmers as the state's aquaculture program moves forward.

His children are grown and have successful careers. His wife works as an office manager for the City of Rehoboth, and they no longer have to worry about fixing up an old home or changing diapers. And in their free time, the two lovebirds – who just celebrated their 40th anniversary April 19 – fly away to New Orleans every chance they get.

For 22 years, Ewart's saxophone had been put to the side. He never got into the college music scene, he said, but he dabbled in learning guitar. He'll never forget the sacrifices his parents made when they took out a loan to rent their seventh-grade son his own sax.

“Other than bringing me into the world and teaching me to be a good person, the next best thing they did for me was music lessons,” Ewart said.

As a young man and new father, who was ripping out walls and studying in between working full time and taking care of babies, there simply wasn't the time for jazz.

Slowly but surely, he's made his way back into the scene. He started sitting in on local bands, struggling at first to keep up with the high-paced professional Cape Region musicians.

“Getting back into music is one of the best things I've ever done,” he said.

After he bought a part-time home in New Orleans about six years ago, his musical network began to span state lines. He's found more and more places to sit in, even alongside Charmaine Neville, the daughter of legendary saxophonist Charles Neville of The Neville Brothers, who he said seems to tolerate him a little more each time.

“I have a fabulous time playing,” he says, as one of the first warm spring days shines down on his muddy boots.

It's clear that the thought of retirement has passed through his mind, but with someone as active as Ewart – both in work and play – he's just not sure when that day will come.

“I just like being outside, working on the water and helping people learn,” he said. “I didn't get to be Jacques Cousteau, but I've been all over the world. If you can do something you love and get paid to do it … well, it's all worked out.”


  • TThe Cape Gazette staff has been featuring Saltwater Portraits for more than 20 years. Reporters prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters in Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday print edition in the Cape Life section and online at To recommend someone for a Saltwater Portrait feature, email

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