Tangier Island and the Way of the Watermen

In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a culture struggles to survive as aquatic life becomes scarce

Tangier Island is located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, just south of the Maryland line. (Ken Castelli)

Tangier Island is an isolated patch of Virginia marshland in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, just south of the Maryland line. For centuries the island has been a community of watermen, the Chesapeake term for people who harvest the crabs, oysters and fish in the bay.

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"Tangier is a living history. We've been doing this hundreds of years," says James Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier. "We are really not that far from D.C. or Richmond, but you can come here and step back in time."

Houses line narrow streets that follow patches of high ground in the town of Tangier, population 535. With no bridge to the mainland, supplies and people arrive on the daily mail boat from Crisfield, Maryland, 12 miles away. Most people get around the 3-mile-long island by foot, golf cart or bicycle.

Residents speak with an accent so distinctive that after a quick listen they can easily tell if someone is from Tangier or another nearby harbor. And the island has its own vocabulary, prompting a resident to compile an extensive dictionary of local terms (including "mug-up" for hearty snack, "cunge" for deep cough). Conversations are peppered with expressions like "yorn" for yours and "onliest" for only.

Almost everyone on the island goes by a colorful nickname; favorites include Puge, Spanky, Foo-Foo, Hambone and Skrawnch. Locals call Mayor Eskridge "Ooker" after the sound he made as a boy when he imitated his pet rooster.

But Tangier's distinct culture is at risk as the Chesapeake's once bountiful aquatic life becomes scarce. The bay's oyster population collapsed in the 1980s and has yet to recover. Now crab levels have plummeted, from more than 800 million total crabs in the bay in the early 1990s, to around 200 million in recent years.

Tangier's woes are linked to the 17 million other people who live in the 200-mile-long bay's watershed, which encompasses parts of six states and the cities of Baltimore, Washington and Richmond. Runoff from farms, suburban lawns and urban areas pollutes the estuary. This smothers underwater grasses that provide crucial habitat to crabs and creates algae blooms that cause oxygen-depleted "dead zones.".

According to Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director at the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation controlling this pollution takes years of political will calling for tough measures. With crab numbers plummeting, "we had no other choice than to cut back on the harvest" he says.

As a result, in 2008, Maryland and Virginia imposed a host of new restrictions on commercial crabbing in the Chesapeake. The closure of the winter crab season, lucrative work in the colder months, was particularly hard for Tangier.

"Our objective is to try to restore the health of bay and aquatic life so that it can support viable fisheries," explains Goldsborough. "We see that task taking place over a longer term... But the watermen don't have the luxury of the long term. They are concerned about making their next boat payment."


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