October 10, 2008

For Watermen, Hanging Up Traps is All Too Common


By Scott Harper

The Virginian-Pilot

tangier island

Dan Dise steered his skiff past empty crab shacks that line Tangier Harbor, the gateway to this historic fishing outpost in the Chesapeake Bay. "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs were taped to many of the dusty windows.

"That guy's on the tug," said Dise, president of the Tangier Island Watermen's Association, pointing to a lifeless shanty. "And that guy, too."

He paused, then noticed another vacant business along the channel. "And that guy just went on the tug last week," Dise said. "Seems like everyone's going."

"Going on the tug" means taking a job off the island aboard tug boats that ferry fuel and cargo up and down the Bay, a move that more and more Tangier watermen are reluctantly taking these days. They leave for two weeks, then return for two weeks. No one seems to like the arrangement.

The phrase also has come to symbolize a summer of discontent on the island, as crabbers are hanging up their traps and moving on to something else, frustrated by government regulations, rising fuel costs and shrinking profits.

A similar exodus is affecting Smith Island, the other big fishing hub in the middle of the Bay, six miles north of Tangier in Maryland waters. Many watermen there are working as prison guards on the Eastern Shore, or as truck drivers, or as carpenters.

The meltdown has been coming for years, as state regulators and scientists have tried, with little success, to revive ailing crab stocks with ever-tightening catch rules - rules that most Tangiermen, as they call themselves, sneer at as silly and esoteric.

"There are fewer and fewer guys catching crabs," said Dise, "so, of course, the catch numbers are going to be down - there's less of us out there!

"But they see the numbers as proof that we're in a crisis, that there's hardly any crabs left in the Bay."

The dilemma boiled over this year, when the governors of Virginia and Maryland pressed for limits intended to reduce the harvest of female crabs by 34 percent. Without such drastic action, the governors argued, the entire crab population could crash, taking jobs and seafood markets with it.

Among the new regulations adopted by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission is a proposed end to winter crab dredging - a practice that many Tangier watermen have relied on for income in the cold winter months for more than 100 years.

"You take that away and we're basically without work, without anything, from November through April," said Tony Pruitt, whose grandfather was one of the first crab dredgers in the early 1900s. "I mean, what are we supposed to do?"

Pruitt, like others, has had to go on the tug to make ends meet.

It is no surprise that many crabbers here can barely contain themselves when the name Timothy M. Kaine comes up. Most snort or chuckle wryly when asked about the governor.

In interviews, many said they think Kaine "got suckered" by Maryland officials, who long have tried to get Virginia to stop dredging, which mostly affects female crabs that hibernate at the southern end of the Bay in wintertime.

Left unsaid in the debate, the watermen note, is that Virginia, by nature, is home to mostly female crabs; the state's catch is typically 70 percent female. Maryland, by contrast, hosts mostly males; its catch is about 30 percent female.

"We get screwed and Maryland gets all the crabs" that are left to migrate north up the Bay, Pruitt said. "Real smart, eh?"

Kaine, a Democrat, visited the island last summer, before the crab crackdown, to announce funding for a new health clinic. He was warmly received. But no more.

"You can tell Kaine to go to hell!" said one idle waterman, sitting outside the Tangier Oil and Fuel Co. on a recent afternoon.

The mayor of Tangier Island, James Eskridge, is a waterman. So is Dise, the vice mayor, who, at 30, is one of the youngest commercial fisherme n left on the island. Most other young adults have left for jobs on the mainland.

Dise recently replaced Jeff Crockett as president of the Tangier Island Watermen's Association. Crockett, a fisherman all his life, has gone on the tug.

"I don't fool with crabs anymore," he said. "They've restricted us so much, you can't make any money at it anymore."

For years, Crockett would make the long trip to Newport News, where the state marine commission meets each month, to argue against proposed rules and regulations. He often came home empty-handed.

"That whole process just about wore me out," he said.

Mayor Eskridge was tending his shedding tanks the other day, watching and waiting for hundreds of peeler crabs to shed their hard shells and become soft-shell crabs - a delicacy that can bring as much as $30 per dozen.

Stray cats wandered about his piers, as they do around much of the island. Eskridge has named them after conservative political figures - Sam Alito, John Roberts, Condi Rice.

He said he tried to work with the Kaine administration before the crab crackdown came earlier this spring.

"They told me to come up with some alternative ideas, which we did," Eskridge recalled. "And then they passed what they wanted to pass anyway."

The mayor said he still is hoping the state "eases back a little" on its restrictions, and has e-mailed his suggestions to several officials. He has asked for just a partial closing of winter dredging, and an additional two weeks of crabbing in November, instead of ending the season early on Oct. 27.

Eskridge and Dise estimate that half of the island's crabbers, or about 70 watermen, have left the industry in the past two years. Most got out this summer, they said.

Some are staying put and helping to run family businesses, such as the fueling station, several bed-and-breakfasts and the handful of local shops. The rest are working aboard tug boats.

The famous Double Six, a weather-beaten little store where watermen gather for coffee and supplies before sunrise, will open this fall for oyster season, with an idle waterman helping to manage the place.

Tangier Island has survived similar economic transitions in its long history.

The island was discovered in 1608 - residents celebrated a 400th anniversary earlier this year - by Captain John Smith, the famous English explorer. When Tangier was finally settled, in 1686, cattle were the primary economic engine.

By the 1800 census, 79 people lived on the island, most of whom were farmers.

It wasn't until the 1840s that fishing became a way of life, and the population boomed - to 589 in 1880, to more than 1,064 in 1900, according to historical accounts.

The population today - 573 - is about the same as in 1880.

Islanders worry, though, that modern times and evolutionary changes, such as the slow erosion of the Tangier shoreline and the sea-level rise from global warming, might be too much to overcome this time.

"You gotta keep trying. Y ou gotta keep working," said Dise, when asked about the future. "What other choice do we have?"

Scott Harper, (757) 446-2340, [email protected]

- online video

Meet the watermen of Tangier Island. PilotOnline .com

Originally published by BY SCOTT HARPER.

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