Bay Journal

Darius A. Stanton II is on the staff of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup.

Watermen are icons, too

  • July 13, 2015
Heading out for a day of crabbing at first light on Smith Island. (Dave Harp)

It’s a moist, mid-July morning, still an hour until sunup. First light is tinging the eastern sky and coaxing color and texture from the dark, Smith Island marshes as we follow a crabber through the winding marsh guts leading out to Tangier Sound. Young ospreys peep as we pass, and great blue herons startle up, squawking harshly, from the fresh, green spartina meadows.

It’s a scene of surpassing beauty to Dave Harp, Sandy Cannon-Brown and me, making a film inspired by next year’s 40th anniversary of William Warner’s “Beautiful Swimmers.” Later, Sandy asks the crabber what thoughts go through his mind as he heads out daily through this Chesapeake Bay wonderland.

“Catchin’ crabs,” he says.

We non-crabbers tend to focus on the ecological status of the blue crab, whose populations in recent years have plummeted and maybe stabilized, at levels around half those of the 1970’s, when Warner chronicled crabs and crabbing and the Chesapeake.

We sometimes forget that watermen, while they are iconic symbols of the Bay, must be businessmen first and foremost. “I wouldn’t want to go back to double the number of crabs,” Lonnie Moore, a Tangier Island, VA, crab potter told us recently.

Lonnie, who worked as a manager, captain and environmental educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for years, fully appreciates the need for a sustainable blue crab population. But prices for crabs right now are excellent, and catches are good enough. He’s doing fine. Twice as many crabs in the Bay would mean more work for lower prices, he figures.

Scientists and environmentalists think about the long-term, historic trends in crab abundance. Crabbers think about making a living in the here and now. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it makes managing crabs and crabbers complicated—no simple, one-size-fits-all answers.

This week, we’ll be down in Virginia, Gloucester Point to Reedville, delving into the relationships between eelgrass and baby crabs; also into crab politics with Ken Smith, head of the Virginia Watermens’ Association.

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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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Read more articles by Tom Horton


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Donald O."SPEC" CAMPEN ,Jr. on July 15, 2015:

BAY JOURNAL great educationally,informationally well presented. terrific feature writers, dedicated to conservation mission to correct BAY problems. makes readers reflect personally as to their needed contribution to mission. LOOK FOR IT always. TOM IS GRAND READING. I born In Chance,Md. august 5 ,!920,so have interests.

Will Boyd on July 18, 2015:

Picked up a copy of the journal while visiting my sister in White Stone. We grew up spending holidays and summers at my grandparents place in Reedville on Cockrell Creek. I read the article about the upcoming documentary and now will be ordering a copy of beautiful swimmers. I am a science teacher and have a science background mostly in bird and forest ecology. I hope to use your material for teaching and also as I continue to research the bay, salt marsh ecosystems, and the history of the northern neck. Thanks for the great reading, Tom.

Doug Holscher on July 25, 2015:

ALWAYS enjoy reading what Tom has written. I read 'Turning the Tide' years ago and have since purchased many of his other books. Thank you Mr. Horton for everything you have done and continue to do.

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