In the Wake of Beautiful Swimmers
A documentary in the making
It’s mid-June on Deal Island, still a couple of hours until dawn when we board the Chesapeake Bay workboat, Lady Ellen, with Grant Corbin and his two mates for a long day of ‘peeler potting’—fishing unbaited crab pots in the waters of Tangier Sound. The pots attract crabs looking for a place to shed their shells. Grant will hold them in tanks of circulating bay water until they turn soft, and valuable, to be shipped overnight to urban markets.
Some 40 years ago Grant was the focus of two chapters in William Warner’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Beautiful Swimmers, which brought crabs and crabbing and Chesapeake Bay to national attention. With videographers/photographers Sandy Cannon Brown and David Harp, I’m spending much of this year making an hour documentary, inspired by my late friend Willy Warner, looking at the future of Bay crabs and crabbers.
We’ve also been out with Morris Marsh, the Smith Island crabber who took Warner fishing in the thick seagrass meadows around the island in the early 1970s. Morris, now in his own 70s, is still going strong, putting in long, hard, hot days that few men of any age could sustain. His son, five years old when Morris told Warner that crabbing was not the kid’s likely future, now crabs alongside his father at age 45.
Some things have changed. The “shiny” bare metal of the crab pots in Beautiful Swimmers is now painted with anti-fouling paint. “A pollution tax,” Corbin calls it. It costs him a few thousand bucks a year, but if you don’t paint, the pots foul with marine growth with today’s water quality.
And there are just a lot fewer watermen. We know far more about crabs scientifically than in 1976; but there are far fewer crabs in the Bay—roughly half as many. Still, the fact that we can now accurately estimate crab populations, thanks to a cooperative survey begun by Maryland and Virginia, gives real hope that we can manage them sustainably from here on out.
The bigger question, still unresolved, may be the future of crabbers: how many, how regulated, how will they fish?
A whole chapter of Beautiful Swimmers can’t be filmed, history. Virginia’s winter crab dredge fishery, after thriving more than a century, has been banned as a measure to conserve the pregnant female crabs it focused on.
The film “Beautiful Swimmers Revisted” is supported by Chesapeake Media Service, the nonprofit publisher of Bay Journal. This blog originally appeared on the Bay Journal’s website. For more information about the film, project updates, or to support the effort, visit the Bay Journal's Beautiful Swimmer's page.
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