Watermen are icons, too
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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