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)

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Mayor Eskridge says that when the new rules were announced, "it was really a down time on the island…. I termed it like a hurricane, when the storm is coming and you don't know what's on the other side."

Watermen typically work without health or retirement benefits, and never know how much they will earn in a season, though they take pride in their independence. "The good Lord gives you strength, and you go out and make your living. You don't have people all over you," says 30-year-old waterman Allen Parks. "You work when you want and like you want. But it's a hard life. It's not an easy life."

The island now has 65 watermen, less than half of the 140 on Tangier in 2003. The loss is an emotional issue on the island. Life on the water stretches back for generations for nearly everyone on Tangier, yet many fear this could be the last generation of Tangier watermen.

In recent years, a number have switched to working on tug boats, spending weeks away from home as they roam up and down the East Coast. Today, there are just as many men working "on the tug" as there are watermen. With few other options on the isolated island, many of the younger generation seek jobs on the mainland.

"This ain't like away from here. Say you were a watermen in [the mainland harbors] Cape Charles or Onancock you can go to a contractor and get a job doing anything, " says George "Cook" Cannon, a 64-year-old former Tangier watermen who now works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Not on here, there ain't nothing to do. That's all it is, water."

But there is some new work for islanders. Last fall, the federal government declared the Chesapeake Bay Crab fishery a failure, paving the way for disaster funding. Virginia and Maryland are using the money to provide jobs that aim to restore the bay to hard-hit watermen. For example, instead of dredging for crabs Tangier watermen spent this winter hunting for lost crab traps that litter the bay's bottom.

An influx in tourism to the island is also bringing in income. During the warmer months, tourists come to Tangier on more frequent ferries or via the island's small airport. Several inns and bed-and-breakfasts dot the town, and waterfront restaurants offer up crab cakes and striped bass. A budding museum chronicles the island's history, and has registered 13,000 visitors since it opened last June. There are narrated golf-cart tours of the island and some watermen take visitors out on boats for a closer look at the island's way of life.

"It helps out the economy," Eskridge says. "And because of the museum and talking with the watermen, tourists are able to learn a lot about the island."

But as erosion continues to gnaw away at Tangier island and the scarcity of crabs and oysters strains the watermen's livelihoods, Tangier residents hope that their way of life can stay strong.

"It's sad. It is real sad. I could cry to think about what's going to happen to Tangier," says Cannon, sitting in his island home on a cold January night. "I see it happening a little bit at time… Watermen got something that's unique and different from anybody else. If we lose that we might as well say forget it."


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