Mark Connolly of St. Michaels, Maryland, harvests clams on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the pre-dawn light.
When the hydraulic escalator dredge—shown above being used by Connolly—was first used to harvest soft-shell clams in Maryland in 1951, it quickly led to the harvest of millions of the bivalves each year. At its peak in 1964, the commercial fishery of soft-shell clams reached close to 680,000 bushels. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, parasites, disease and severe weather collided to contribute to a stark decline in harvests. Despite a slight recovery in the late 1980s, harvests crashed again in 1992 and have yet to recover. Once the most prolific producer of soft-shell clams in the country, commercial harvest of soft-shell clams in Maryland now measures in the hundreds of bushels.
As soft-shell clam harvests plummeted, watermen turned to harvesting the stout razor clam for use as bait for blue crabs. For nearly two decades, razor clams served as an adequate alternative—but in 2003, watermen reported observing unprecedented numbers of dead razor clams. Subsequent surveys estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the stout razor clams in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay had died, most likely from a fatal blood cancer called DN Disease.
These days, watermen looking to harvest clams in the Chesapeake Bay are focused on the hard clam. Aquaculture operations in the saltier waters of the lower Bay have been particularly successful harvesting the bivalves: Virginia shellfish farmers planted 526 million hard clams in 2015, an increase from 400 million a decade prior.
Learn more about the decline of soft shell and razor clams in the Bay.
Image by Keith Rutowski
For many of the people living upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, daily life doesn’t involve crab pots or oyster dredges. A group of such Bay novices — including one member who had never been on a boat — assembled in Crisfield, Md., this fall to take a ferry to Smith Island, one of the last two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Actually a small cluster of low-lying stretches of land, Smith Island and its Virginia neighbor Tangier Island carry a rich cultural history dating back to the 1600s. Over the years, they have been subjected to the extreme weather conditions in the open Chesapeake Bay and forces of sea level rise and land subsidence that have already claimed surrounding islands. The trip, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup, gave the foresters the chance to experience the unique life of a Chesapeake waterman.
“These participants are engaged in work throughout the watershed that directly benefits the quality of the Bay, but often they have very little experience on the Bay itself,” said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Forests for the Bay initiative, who has facilitated the excursion for the past two years. “This trip is a way to connect their work with a community that relies so intimately with a healthy Bay.”
Over the course of two and a half days, the group of foresters followed educators from Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island environmental education center, taking in the unique culture, exploring the changing environment and finding new connections that bring the Bay closer to home.
“I think this group was able to draw similarities between the rural communities they work with — who rely on the natural resources on the land — with this rural community that relies on the natural resources of the Bay,” said Highfield.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Sunken fishing traps are having a big impact on wildlife in coastal waters around the United States, including blue crabs and the watermen who depend on them in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the problem of derelict fishing gear—which includes lost and discarded nets and traps—is “pervasive, persistent and largely preventable.” Whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, derelict gear can continue to “ghost fish,” catching fish, turtles and other species and damaging seafloor habitats. In some cases, dead organisms continue to serve as bait until the traps stop catching fish.
“People may not realize that derelict traps can catch not just the target species of the fishery, but also other animals, including threatened and endangered species where populations are already very low,” said scientist Ariana Sutton-Grier in a media release.
In the Chesapeake Bay, derelict crab traps impact blue crabs, diamondback terrapins and other species. Between 35 and 40 percent of derelict traps are ghost fishing, with the highest catch rates taking place in Maryland waters. Here, about 20 blue crabs per trap per year are caught and killed, which researchers attribute to gear that is not designed to allow species to escape when traps become derelict.
The loss of fishing gear has an economic impact, too. According to the report, derelict traps in Virginia waters have caught as many as 913,000 crabs in a year, with an estimated worth of $304,000, or one percent of the Commonwealth’s annual commercial blue crab landings. In addition to the impact on commercial fisheries, there is a irect cost to watermen to replace lost traps, which range from $60 to $600.
Traps with biodegradable escape panels—which are inexpensive and easy to install—have been successfully tested in the Bay, with no adverse effects on blue crab catch. These, along with boat lanes that keep propellers away from trap lines and improved outreach and education to watermen, could pose solutions to the region’s derelict fishing trap problem.
Have you ever found yourself looking out at the boats dotting the Chesapeake Bay and wondering, “What kind of ship is that?” So have we! Below is a list of 10 iconic watercraft visible on the Bay today.
1. Log Canoe. Recognized as the Bay’s first workboat, log canoes once filled the region’s waterways as watermen sailed about in search of fish and shellfish. They are usually made from three to five hollowed out logs that are fastened together and shaped into a hull. One or two large masts jut out from the center of the boat, and sails capture the wind and use it as a propellant. Most log canoes that exist today have retired from their working lives and are sailed in races; in fact, fewer than two dozen log canoes remain in the Bay region and, out of those, less than half race.
2. Skipjack. In the late nineteenth century, the skipjack—a popular work boat for watermen—saw a production boom as the Maryland oyster harvest reached an all-time peak of 15 million bushels. But as the Bay’s oyster population steadily declined, so did its skipjack fleet. There are 35 skipjacks left in the Bay region, many of them used for educational purposes (like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s skipjack, Stanley Norman). Like oysters, the boats that harvested them are culturally significant to this region—so much so that the state of Maryland named the skipjack its official state boat.
3. Skiff. Skiffs are shallow, flat-bottomed boats recognizable by their sharp bow and square stern. These watercraft are made to move through the tributaries and along the coastal areas of the Bay. While they can be used as workboats, skiffs are typically used for recreational fishing and other leisurely outings.
4. Deadrise. The official boat of Virginia, the deadrise is a traditional work boat used by watermen to catch blue crabs, fish and oysters. The vessel is marked by a sharp bow that expands down the hull into a large V shape and a square stern.
5. Research vessel. Restoring the health of the Bay is as complex as the Bay ecosystem itself. Research vessels like the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) R/V Rachel Carson travel the Bay, collecting data about water quality, flora and fauna to help scientists gain a better understanding about what should be done to improve our restoration efforts.
6. Kayak. These small, human-powered boats are propelled by a double-bladed paddle. Kayaks are believed to be more than 4,000 years old, and originated as a hunting craft used on lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Modern kayaks vary in size and shape depending upon the paddler’s intended use. Whether it is racing through whitewater rapids or fishing in placid waters, kayaks are a sound choice for many recreational boater’s needs.
7. Schooner. Schooners are sailing ships with two or more masts. They have a long history in the mid-Atlantic as workboats for the watermen who made their living harvesting oysters, blue crabs and fish from the Bay. Every October, schooners can be seen racing 146 miles down the Bay from Annapolis, Maryland, to Hampton Roads, Virginia, as a part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. This race was started to draw attention to the Bay’s heritage and to support environmental education and restoration work.
8. Racing shell. The sport of rowing is often referred to as crew, and is a popular pastime for many who live in the watershed. While its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt, competitive rowing did not evolve until the early eighteenth century in London. It is one of the oldest Olympic sports. While racing, athletes sit with their backs to the bow of the racing shell and face the stern, using oars to propel the boat forward.
9. Shipping tanker. The shipping industry has been critical to the mid-Atlantic economy since the colonial era because the region serves as a bridge between the north and the south. In fact, the Bay is home to two of the United States’ five major North Atlantic ports: Baltimore, Maryland, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. Shipping tankers were created to transport large amounts of commodities and can range in size and capacity from several hundred tons to several hundred thousand tons.
10. Canoe. Canoes are lightweight, human-propelled water craft that are pointed at each end and open on top. Typically, one or more people paddle the boat with an oar while seated or kneeling. Like kayaks, canoes are multifaceted watercraft that can be used for anything from recreational fishing and paddling to moving through whitewater.
At sunrise, the Roughwater heads out of its Solomons Island harbor and onto the Patuxent River. Driven by a captain who has worked the Chesapeake Bay for two decades, the boat stops over an unseen reef. Simon Dean and his crew—Brian Elder and Jason Williams—are wearing waterproof bibs and white rubber boots, and are ready to bring in oysters.
Known as patent tonging, the work that takes place on the Roughwater moves in one fluid motion: hydraulic tongs enter the water, grab a mess of oysters and dump them with a crash onto a metal culling table. Three-inch grooves built into the table’s edge help the crew cull, or sort the oysters by size. Good oysters are tossed into a plastic basket, while too-small bivalves and empty shells go back overboard.
The patent tongs are controlled by foot pedals: one pushes the tongs up and down, while the other swings them open and closed. “At the end of the day, your feet are more tired than your hands,” Dean said.
As a waterman, Dean’s work is dependent on the seasons. During the winter, he oysters. During the summer, he crabs and takes fishing parties out on the Bay. He bought the Roughwater in 2009, and was “running everybody else’s boat before that.”
Wooden-handled culling hammers help Dean and his crew knock undersized oysters off of bigger bivalves. Young oysters attach themselves to adults in order to grow, forming dense reefs that offer habitat to fish, crabs and other critters. While concrete is often used to construct artificial reefs, shell makes the best substrate for spat.
Watermen must work to “get as much shell off as you can,” Dean said. In part, this is because buyers prefer the look of a clean oyster. And in part, it is because shell must go back into the Bay, where it will provide a new place for young oysters to settle.
In an effort to restore natural oyster populations to the Bay, shell recycling programs have popped up across the region and lawmakers have established oyster sanctuaries and strengthened harvesting restrictions. But this seems to have fueled tension between states and the industry and fed the belief that watermen often work in conflict with the law.
Dean and his wife, Rachel, are working to change this oft-held perception, using heritage tourism to teach both children and adults about estuarine life and the role that watermen play in the region’s history and economy. “We’re not poachers. We’re not outlaws. We’re not thieves,” Dean said. And he hopes that Solomons Island Heritage Tours will “break down that stigma that watermen have [against them].”
Dean and his crew don’t have time for conversation while the tongs are running. Dean thinks about how he will sell his oysters, and how he will compete with other watermen. By the end of the day, they have reached their patent tonging limit: 15 bushels per license, with two licenses per boat. Dean will sell some of these to restaurants and some to individuals. But will he ever keep any for himself? “I like them,” Dean said. But when it comes to eating them, “I just don’t have time.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.