I was out on the glittering blue of the southern Chesapeake Bay this morning, near Tangier Island, Va., working my back, hauling a crab scrape. A “scrape” is a metal rectangle, about four feet wide, attached to a net bag that watermen drag through shallow waters to catch blue crabs.
Donald “Thornie” Thorne Jr., 54, the son and grandson of watermen, showed me how to pull in the rope, hand-over-hand. We dumped the heavy bag into a white wooden tray on the side of his boat. Into the box flopped a riot of crabs, heaps of reddish sponge-like moss, strings of lime-green eelgrass, pipefish the size of toothpicks, and razor clams.
Thornie and I picked through the mound, hunting for crabs that are about to shed their shells and become soft crabs. Soft crabs are prized because they’re worth perhaps 10 times the price of hard blue crabs. Thornie scrutinized their swim fins for half-moon shaped lines that hint they’re about to free themselves of their shells. He tossed these so-called “peelers” into a basket to keep. Everything else he flung overboard.
“Lookie here – here’s a buster,” he said, holding up a female crab that was literally busting its way out of its shell backwards. The crab had the look of a conjoined twin, with two back ends, one growing atop the other.
About 60 watermen still make a living crabbing on Tangier Island, which has about 550 residents, a public school, grocery store, two churches, four restaurants, a few bed & breakfasts for tourists and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Port Isobel education center (where I stayed).
The numbers of professional watermen here are dwindling, with roughly half as many today as two decades ago. Some crabbers have switched to piloting tug boats, which takes the men away from their families for weeks at a time. Overall, as the crabbing industry has diminished, so has the number of families able to survive here on Tangier Island.
Crab populations in the Bay have dropped by more than half since the early 1990s. Water pollution has hurt the estuary’s ability to feed and shelter crabs, and overfishing has also played a role, scientists report. Last winter, Virginia for the first time banned dredging for crabs during the winter, which was necessary to prevent a collapse of the fishery – but which also hurt watermen like Thornie. There was an encouraging rise in crab populations surveyed after that ban, but it’s unclear if this will continue or if the overall trend line will resume its decline.
Spending time with Thornie out on the water this morning was a wonderful way to experience Tangier present. But I also saw a vision of Tangier future – if the Bay’s water quality continues to worsen.
A former waterman, Lonnie Moore, now manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s boat fleet, took me in a golf cart (almost nobody drives a car on this tiny island) on a bouncing tour of the town and outlying areas of Tangier.
We hummed over narrow wooden bridges that knit together clusters of homes by spanning the streams and marshes that twist and sprawl everywhere. We rambled between tall curtains of grass, past graveyards where all the dead have huge cement slabs over them, so they don’t float to the surface during the floods. We stopped at the island’s sandy beaches, brilliant white and lapped by hot August waves.
Finally, we halted at a boat graveyard. About 20 vessels lie rotting in Pruitt’s Boatyard, many at cockeyed angles, their paint peeling, windows busted, engines missing, and weeds curling around their hulls. The Island Market. The Alecia Marie. The Elizabeth Anne. The Ginna Jackie. Most are the former workboats of watermen.
“Ten or 15 years ago, these boats where commercially viable,” said Moore, 55, whose family has lived on Tangier Island since the 1700s. “But it got too hard for people to make a living… and people couldn’t sell them, because there is no value to these boats anymore.”
He leaned his hand on the weather-beaten stern of a white and red crabbing boat, its name obscured by time, but the words “Tangier, VA” still visible.
“The number of crabs have declined by at least 50 percent over the last 20 years, and if you look at the amount of the boats in the graveyard here, it’s risen by about 50 percent also over the same period of time,” he said. “It tells the story pretty well.”