Maryland’s watermen navigate challenges old and new during the COVID-19 pandemic
A photo essay explores the communities that work the Bay
By Carlin Stiehl |
There are few people with as deep a connection to the Chesapeake Bay as watermen in Maryland. Their profession is often passed down through generations, along with an intimate appreciation for the Bay and the bounty that it provides. Watermen have faced environmental and economic challenges for well over 100 years and have proven their ability to adapt. Yet, 2020 has tested watermen communities in unprecedented ways.
The coronavirus has forced economic strain on a finely balanced industry of supply and demand and highlighted the challenges that watermen have long faced while trying to preserve their culture. Some claim that the last watermen are working the Bay at this moment, as their average age skews older and older. The future for Maryland watermen is uncertain, yet the faith and commitment of those who rise each day to work the Chesapeake Bay perseveres.
John Tyler, 64, and his grandson, Levi Somers, 8, stand for a portrait in Tyler’s crab shanty on Smith Island. Tyler started working the water at 11 years old, obtained his first boat at 15 and was working on his own at 16. Throughout his years on the water, he has seen a profitable industry turn into a continuous battle for survival. Tyler says there is a “perception that watermen will go out there and catch the last crab” that doesn’t reflect the sense of integrity and stewardship watermen bring to their work. Tyler feels that working conditions for watermen are becoming impossible, with few alternatives. “I’m 64 years old, what the hell am I going to do,” Tyler said. If the watermen profession dies, “there’s a lot of knowledge that’s going to die with it.”
The house of Nick Hargrove, a partner at Wild Divers Oyster Co., lies behind a pile of oyster shells in Wittman Wharf. The shells are recycled as fresh bottom for baby oysters to attach to and grow from in the aquaculture process, a growing industry in the Chesapeake region. At its peak in the late 1800s, roughly 20 million bushels were pulled from the Bay each year, but overharvesting, disease and habitat loss have reduced the oyster population to less than 1% of historic levels.
Hector Rene Modueño, left, and Edgar Riber, transfer menhaden from a pound net into Captain Boo Polly’s boat near the shore of St. Mary’s County. The process of transferring fish onto the boat is physically intensive, leaving the crew wading waist deep in menhaden on the ride to the processing plant. Menhaden are considered one of the most important fisheries in the Chesapeake despite not being harvested for human consumption. Instead they are used in products like fish oil supplements, cosmetics and bait for other fisheries. Polly said the price of menhaden is down this season, which he attributes to the economic constraints from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edgar Riber wipes his face while shoveling menhaden onto a conveyor belt at Russell Hall Seafood in Hoopers Island. Much of the fishing industry is supported by people that come to the United States from Latin American countries on H-2B work visas. Catching some sleep while on the boat, the men accomplish a full day’s work before many people wake up.
The sun rises behind Capt. Polly’s pound net. Work begins around 4 a.m. and continues until noon every day but Sunday throughout the fishing season. For watermen, witnessing sunrises throughout the year is a cherished aspect of their work.
Mark Kitching looks out at his scraper while crabbing at dawn around the waters of Smith Island. Kitching relies on years of first-hand observations and local knowledge to weather the unpredictability of good and bad fishing years. “It’s an industry where one year you feel like you are on top of the world and another you could not be,” Kitching said. “Faith has always been something for us to make a living out of, and it hasn’t let us down.”
Mark Kitching jokes on the radio with other watermen while out crabbing on the Chesapeake. The friendly banter is a pastime and an informal means of updating fellow watermen on the state of the Bay.
Clyde “Butch” Walters collects soft shell crabs in his shanty at Scotts Cove Marina in Chance, Maryland. During the season, Butch works 900 crab pots out on the Bay six days a week. “I knew I was going to be a waterman since I was a boy,” said Walters, who quit school to pursue his dream. Owning his own business and the joy he receives crabbing out on the Bay is a sentiment shared by many watermen. “You’re in that wild together,” Walters said.
Clyde “Butch” Walters and his wife MaeBelle sit for a portrait in their crab shanty. Family photos and their children’s drawings hang above them. The couple have sold blue crabs together for 38 years, but between their three children, “none of them want to take over the business,” Walters said. “We will probably have to sell.”
From left, Stanley Larrimore, 90, and John Kinnamon, 83, sit outside of Fairbank Tackle in Tilghman Island, where the local waterman community would pass time before and after fishing. Larrimore said it “used to be so full of people.” Larrimore started working the water in 1947, learning from his father Glendy. He eventually dredged oysters with his own skipjack, Lady Katie, until 1999. This was the same boat President Ronald Reagan stood upon to deliver an address about the future of the Chesapeake in 1984. Kinnamon began crabbing in 1969, and still does to this day. “That glare of that water is tough on you,” Kinnamon said.
A double rainbow appears after a cloudburst passed over Tilghman Island. Areas like Tilghman Island are still home to smaller traditional waterman communities, but have also been subject to gentrification and an increase in summer homes.
American Flags rest inside the shuttered Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge. The plant was once the largest employer in Dorchester county. Today the property is the focus of a restoration and revitalization effort by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
Workers operating under the H-2B visa program have their temperature checked before picking crabs at Russell Hall Seafood in Fishing Creek. COVID-19 has forced seafood businesses to adapt to new social distancing and health protocols.
Blue crabs are pulled out of an industrial steamer at Russell Hall Seafood. Each crab will be hand-picked before being shipped and sold as lump crab meat. Sponge crabs—female crabs that are carrying unhatched eggs—are only legal to harvest in Virginia. Each sponge may contain anywhere from 750,000 to eight million eggs, with the average sponge containing two million already fertilized and developing crabs.
Workers pick crabs at Russell Hall Seafood. Russell Hall is one of only two out of the five picking houses on Hoopers Island that were awarded visas for workers this year. Mark Phillips, son of Russell Hall owner Harry Phillips, says “it doesn’t just hurt his business, but the whole community,” as watermen have fewer places to offload their catch. “We’ve had job fairs everywhere, Baltimore to Washington, [but] people just aren’t going to do it,” Phillips said. “If I had to run this business and rely on Americans, I’d sell it today.”
A painted fishing boat on Tilghman Island voices its owner’s support for President Trump, whose administration has acted to reduce the number of visas available to seafood processors. Most Eastern Shore counties voted conservatively in 2016, so it’s not surprising to see Trump flags fly from many workboats.
Scott Robinson Jr. erases the whiteboard used to list oyster orders at Madhouse Oysters, an oyster farming company on Hoopers Island. Since COVID-19 struck, restaurant closures and reduced menu options have lessened the demand for live oysters, leading to a surplus. If oysters can’t be sold before they grow too large to easily slurp at restaurants, growers may not be able to find alternative markets for their product.
Jozie Wilson works the storefront at Wittman Wharf Seafood in Wittman, Maryland. The company opened a storefront at its shucking house location as restaurant closures due to COVID-19 hurt their profits. The move was a success—news of the store spread to the local community and beyond and calls started coming from states as far away as New York, according to Marc Van Pelt, a partner in the business.
A ghost forest of loblolly pines on Deal Island is the result of sea level rise and shoreline erosion. As the brackish water encroaches further into the root systems on land, it kills off the trees that cannot handle the salt content.
At high tide, the elevation of Smith Island Road is zero feet, making tidal flooding a common occurrence. Land subsidence, sea level rise and erosion have caused Chesapeake islands to shrink and ultimately disappear, but the short-term effects have been normalized as routine in the eyes of many locals.
LEFT: Seen from a ferry arriving at Smith Island, docks and crab shanties lead to homes of watermen and their families. RIGHT: Jesse Brimer of Smith Island, 73, started working the water in 1963, joking that he “thought it would make you grow up faster.” Brimer is hopeful “it will work out” for watermen who are earlier in their careers.
LEFT: A copy of An Island out of Time, a memoir of the Smith Island Community, sits on a coffee table in the Smith Island Inn. RIGHT: Worship hymnal books lie behind Captain Terry Laird in the camp meeting ground of Smith Island United Methodist Church. The 134th annual Camp Meeting is cultural and religious tradition for Smith Islanders that brings nearly all of the community together. “If a season is bad, God is going to provide for us,” Rev. Everett Landon Sr. said.
The graveyard of Holland Island Methodist Church is one of the last visible remains of the community that once inhabited the island. Holland Island has been sinking into the Chesapeake as the landmass is eroded away by heavy winds, seas and storms.
The graveyard of the Wesley Church on Deal Island is sinking as cracked tombstones break into the ground. The low elevation of the Island has made it susceptible to flooding and erosion, much like the outlying buffer islands on the Chesapeake Bay.
LEFT: David Pietroski holds an arrowhead fragment on Adams Island, northwest of Holland Island. The Eastern Shore and much of the Chesapeake region was home to Algonquian-speaking indigenous populations before European settlement, and several tribes continue to live in the region today. RIGHT: Clyde “Butch” Walters looks for arrowheads on Adams Island. As the shoreline continues to erode, once-buried artifacts begin to surface after each major storm.
LEFT: Luke Holloway, 6, reaches for Pop-Tarts at Arby’s General Store in Deal lsland, while Kelsie Holland checks her phone. RIGHT: Arby Holland smokes a cigarette on the patio with Sharlene Thornton, while his wife Debbie peeks outside to check on customers. Like many fishing towns, Arby’s is the only location on Deal Island where locals can get food and supplies. Since the pandemic began, shelves of tackle remain empty, but the store also functions as a bar and grill that has been doing well because it is the “only place to sell” crabs, Holland said.
Kevin and Lou Czarniewy enjoy a sunset on the beach near a large pile of oyster shells at the Deal Island Marina. The couple works in Washington, D.C., but for 12 years have owned a second home in Deal Island, where they enjoy the area’s natural beauty. An influx of “summer home” owners has become more common in historic watermen communities.
Isaac Wilding of St. Michaels Oyster Company harvests oysters from his leased oyster farm on Cummings Creek in Wittman. Wilding began growing oysters three years ago as a passion project, with oyster seed from Phillips Wharf Environmental Center in Tilghman Island. His method is “low and local” which has allowed him to slowly grow his business. The image of modern watermen is shifting as new economic opportunities like aquaculture become more easily accessible. Wilding says that he is “not totally welcomed” by watermen who “are traditional in their ways.”
A crab scrape harvests blue crabs near Smith Island. Bay grasses are the foundation of the Chesapeake ecosystem and provide habitat for blue crabs and other wildlife. The scrape consists of a net that is dragged across the underwater grasses in a way that doesn’t damage the sea bottom.
A baby blue crab is pulled up with a crab scrape. Crab populations vary year-to-year, making the number of juveniles a good predictor of future harvests.
A white rubber fishing boot lies along Smith Island Road. The future for watermen is as shifting and unpredictable as the tides. Faith, knowledge and a close connection to the environment have allowed them to persist, and their perseverance and resilience will carry them forward.