Hard Times for ‘Beautiful Swimmers’

Vol. 8, No. 48
Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2000
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...But Some Watermen Still Stay Winners
By Christopher Heagy

I am not much of a crab man. Sure, I grew up eating crabs at backyard picnics and even worked in a crab house one summer. But I don't make my living catching crabs. I've never stuck a line in the water and caught a crab for myself.

When I got assigned to write about commercial crabbers and the difficulties of the 2000 season, I got an education.

"August crab harvest is lowest on record. Figures feed concern about state of fishery in Chesapeake Bay" warned a Baltimore Sun headline in September.

The bad news continued in the story: "Maryland's blue crab harvest last month was the worst since the state has kept accurate records and all but ensures the worst season on record. Crab harvests have been declining steadily over the last 10 years, leading to fears that the most valuable commercial fishery in the Bay is on verge of collapse."
Reviewing a backlog of 10 years of articles about the blue crab, I read again and again about the decline and downfall of the blue crab. I formed an image of old men and the Bay, beaten down by years of working a resource no longer giving back, struggling to survive.

That's not what I found when I went to talk to watermen.

I found independent men working hard to make their way on the Bay. I found men who lived the up-and-down cycles of the blue crab. They looked at low stocks, regulations and reports of their demise as challenges to overcome.

The Atlantic blue crab is often described as a resilient species. So are the men who catch the crabs. Like the blue crab stock, the number of watermen will rise and fall. But as long as there are blue crabs in the Bay, there will be men to catch them.

Two Faces of Crabbing

Bob Evans: A Life in Love with the Water

The big man backs up the F250. Bob Evans opens the pick-up's door and steps into a gray November day.

"I'll be with you in a minute, sir," he bellows.

We're in West River, behind Evans' house and in front of the shop that houses Bob Evans Seafood. The store looks like a garage. On the wall, a whiteboard hawks crabs, oysters, rockfish and seasoning.

Evans pulls a crab pot from the truck bed and sets it on the ground. He walks into the house, pours a cup of black coffee and pulls out a chair. He sits, his back to the wall.

Big is the word to describe this man. He's big not just in size but in voice, in presence. He looks wind-blown from working outside all day, but he doesn't look cold, as if the late fall chill has no effect.

"The wind blew. We couldn't get out today," Evans says. "We were replacing some floorboard on the boat."

There's always work to do.

Bob Evans has been living off the water for over 30 years. He's seen ups and downs, good years and bad, and he's always made it through.

Crab season this year was "terrible. There were crabs hardly anywhere," according to Evans.

But his year wasn't terrible.

"I went up to the Susquehanna Flats this summer and crabbed, which I had done before. I caught a lot of crabs, and prices were good," Evans explains. "I've had a wonderful year. I've seen years where there's too damn many crabs. I do better when there's not a great abundance of stock because when there is, anybody can catch them."

Even though the money was good, summer on the flats was not easy. Evans' day often started at 3:30 or 4am with an 80-mile drive to his boat. After an hour–and–15– minute run, Evans and his crew spent eight hours crabbing. The return trip made it a 14- or 15-hour day.

"This isn't just a job," Evans says. "It's a way of life. There is no way in the world that anybody's going to do what we do and put in the hours, in the wind and the heat and the cold and the rain, for a hundred bucks a day.

"You know, it's a good honest living, and when you have a good day on the water you really feel like you've done something. But you just don't do it for the money. Ya gotta love it to do something like that."

Evans' is an acquired love. He grew up on Harness Creek, off the South River, but not in family that followed the water. "I was raised on a produce farm there. You know, we worked on the farm for a dollar an hour when I was 13, 14 years old," he explains, looking back three decades. "But we lived right on the water. Really, my love was always on the water. Ever since I was a kid I had a boat. You could go out and catch a bunch of oysters and make a hundred dollars a day. What choice was there?"

Evans' father was a pharmacist, his mother a schoolteacher. He says he is the first family member in seven generations not to have a professional career. But he's a professional in his own way.

He's president of the Anne Arundel County Waterman's Association, a board member of the Maryland Waterman's Association, a member of the Maryland Seafood Marketing Commission as well as a member of several other Maryland Department of Natural Resources and waterman's committees. All in all, Evans spends about 50 days a year lobbying for his industry. All that's just another part of his life on the water.

Evans worked his home river until the middle of the 1970s. As pollution worsened, the rockfish and oysters declined. Prospects looked better on the upper Patuxent River.

"We trapped muskrats for a living in the wintertime," Evans remembers. "December, January, February, we trapped furs. It was a lucrative business. Also, what people don't realize, is that the Patuxent River had a tremendous spawning run of white perch and rockfish during the spring."

Weakening demand for furs and the decline of rockfish pushed Evans into crabbing. "I started crab potting in 1975," he says, "but I really got big into it in the '80s. It became my mainstay. As the rockfish declined, I crabbed longer."

Now Evans' business fluctuates between crabbing and fishing.

"I'll crab five days a week and I'll fish two days," he explains. "That's usually what I do during the summertime, but it depends on how the crabbing and fishing is going. Right now, I'm fishing four days a week and crabbing three. It goes back and forth, wherever the money is in this business."

After 30 years on the water, Bob Evans is not planning to go anywhere. This is who he is and what he knows. Through the ups and downs, he knows that he can find a way to make his life on the water work.

"Let me tell you something about this water business," he says. "We have the ability to go out on the water everyday and make a living doing something. I started out with a skiff and an outboard motor. I've built my business through hard work and, like I said, the water business has been very good to me." Evans says this in his booming voice, matter of factly. It is not a boast. It's just the way he is, just the way things are.

"I love the water. I don't want a vacation. When we get a day off, we just go back on the water and fish," he says with a laugh. "Until somebody pays me for shooting ducks, this is what I want to do."

The Water, the Crabs and the American Dream

This is a tale of two watermen. They do the same thing, but they are different people. One grew up on the water, spends most of his time there and loves every minute. The other likes what he does, but catching crabs is just part of the game he plays.

On Chesapeake Bay, both are living an American dream. It may not be your American dream. It's not the one we see on television, the dream of big IPOs, fabulous wealth and answering nine questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

This is a dream as old as the United States, older in fact, back to who knows when. It is a dream of freedom, it is a dream of chance, it is a dream of working on a huge body of water open with possibilities.

For these two men, the water was the land of opportunity. They looked out and saw a way - with hard work, quick thinking and dedication - to do what they wanted. To control their own destiny.

And now in a year when the crabs have all but disappeared, these men keep doing what they know

Steve Smith: More to the Game

"I don't see a lot of people on the Western Shore doing that old song 'well, I was born into it and this is what we do,'" says Steve Smith. "That may be true, but for me, it's done for money. I haven't done anything else in the last 28 years."

At the kitchen table of his Fairhaven home, arms on top of his head, Smith talks while keeping an eye on stock quotes streaming by on CNBC.

In chinos and a St. Mary's College sweatshirt, he looks like an insurance salesman or a banker on his day off. He could be a college professor, like his father. But Smith is a commercial crabber.

After spending summers on the Western Shore, Smith returned to Fairhaven in 1970 with a history degree from Iowa State. Living in a smaller version of the house he still owns, he heard a sound that he still remembers:

"There was a drone of noise. I didn't know what was going on. There were like 70 oyster boats on Holland Point. What's going on there? And the wheels started turning."

Smith bought his first boat for $600 in 1972.

"That wasn't a lot of money back then," he says, chuckling. I didn't know one end of the boat from another, and I didn't catch a lot of oysters."

But Smith found a way to make money. At the time, oysters were selling for $3 a bushel or $12 a gallon shucked.

"I shucked everything I caught. Catch six, seven, five bushels, stay up all night, shuck them, sell 'em," he recalls.

Smith started crabbing with his brother the next season. They didn't have much success in the summer of '73.

"In the fall, I was crabbing by myself and I started catching a few crabs. Whatever you could catch, however hard you wanted to work, it was more money. That's all there was to it. By '75 I gave up oystering and haven't worked in winter since."

Smith has slowed down a bit, but not too long ago this was a devotion.

"This was not that good a year, but that's also a function of how old I am, how long I've been crabbing, where I'm at in my life cycle. I was committed to this 15 years ago," he explains. "I was unbearable. I worked summertimes where I did nothing but work and sleep. I've gone six months without missing a day.

"I was obsessed with catching crabs. I'm slightly embarrassed when I think about it. I used to drive really hard. It's a seat-of-the pants type of deal, where you're right there. It's seasonal, and there's a lot of money involved."

For Smith, catching the crabs is just part of the game. The business side is as much a challenge.

"You've got to generate the business," Smith explains. "You've got two crab houses, three crab houses and you want them all to think that they're number one. They're not, but you've got to have them because you need them all.

"You're jockeying crabs. The houses are right next to each other, but you can't go up there with a truck with 30 bushels and say you're only getting 15. You have to go up with 15, then come back and with 15 more and go to the other one and on and on and on.

"I've never been in the corporate world, but this is very basic, very primitive. It's either a buyer's market or a seller's market, and very seldom is it perfectly balanced. It can't be."

As November pulls to an end, Smith has pulled his final pots this crabbing season. With winter approaching, he has time to think about replacing pots, repairing his boat and spending another season on the water.

"Why would anyone crab on when they don't have to?" Smith asks, but he doesn't expect an answer. "If you can't find anything better to do with your time, then you're not looking hard enough. But we've done this. We crab on. I just shook hands with my crab house today. 'See you next spring,' I said.

"And I may or may not. Probably will, though."

What Would We Do Without Atlantic Blue?

Maryland is for crabs. The blue crab is entrenched in the culture of Chesapeake Country. From T-shirts to earrings to crabs on the table, from Baltimore to Ocean City, the blue crab is everywhere.

Steamed reddish-orange, with a cold beer and corn on the cob, the blue crab is a summer tradition. It's a symbol of good times and good friends in the land of pleasant living.

A lot of money in the land of pleasant living is made from the blue crab. With a weak oyster population and rockfish newly recovered, crabs in the Chesapeake, like cotton in the pre-Civil War South, are the cash crop. Over the last 10 years, the crab harvest has been worth an average of $50 million. Add to that the surrounding money spent on fuel, pots, bait, beer, seasoning, mallets, crab feasts and vinegar, and the blue crab leaves a big imprint on the economy of Chesapeake Country.

Prices, stocks and catches are watched like an earnings report from a Fortune 500 company. Reports on the demise of the blue crab seem always on the horizon. Blue crab populations seem to always ebb and flow, but the falling commercial catches of the last decade have many - including the governments of Maryland and Virginia - worried.

So in 1999, both Maryland and Virginia ponied up $150,000 for a two-year survey of the blue crab fishery. The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee - made up of politicians, commercial and recreational crabbers, conservationists, scientists, economists and resource managers - this fall reported their provisional findings and recommendations.

At the end of September, the Advisory Committee issued a 15-item "statement of consensus" based on their study. Most of the findings are straightforward, even if the terms are somewhat tricky. The report concludes that "overall abundance for all age groups of blue crabs is down. Spawning stock biomass is below the long-term average. The fishery's independent surveys show a decreasing percentage of legal size crabs."

In fewer words: The blue crab is in trouble.

The big news is the committee's recommendation: "Fishing mortality must be reduced and fishing effort must be controlled in all sectors of the fishery to ensure the long-term sustainability of the crab stock."

To simplify, we're approaching a level of overfishing that could cause the blue crab population to collapse. This is a threshold. Targets need to be set back from the threshold for the blue crab to thrive.

Over the past month, the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee has held public forums throughout Maryland and Virginia. They have explained their findings and listened to watermen.

Mid-November, they briefed the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee. For the future of the blue crab fishery will not be decided on the Bay but in rooms full of politicians.

The Advisory Committee has presented the lawmakers a variety of options for reducing the crab catch. From shortening the season to limiting pots to adding a day off for commercial crabbers to increasing the size of legal crabs to further limiting recreational catches, there are many options. In the end, all these options mean more legislation, more regulation, more government. Which is not the way blue crabs have been caught over the years.

To all this, Steve Smith has a wait-and-see attitude.

"Watermen," he says, "are, by nature - I don't want to say outlaws, but - individuals. We tend to not want to conform, not want to be regulated. I've been crabbing for 28 years, and my theory is those that are paid to manage will manage. They want to do it. The question is whether they will be able to do it or not."

The 2001 legislative session will be a critical time for the future of the blue crab - though in all their deliberations not a single crab will be caught.
Where Will Our Watermen Go?

Bob Evans pointed a long finger at one of his employees. He was a mountain of a young man. Six-foot-four or -five - but still a baby-faced 18- or 19-year old.

"Take this gentleman right here, Anthony Jones," Evans said "Just graduated high school and he's been working for me for five years. You can't tell me a man that size can't go out and to get a job doing something else. He loves working on the water, and if you ask him, he'll probably tell you that he wants to work on the water the rest of his life. Isn't that right?"

"Yeah," Jones softly replied.

According to this version of the American Dream, there will always be men who want to work the water, want to carve out their life on the Bay. The number will go up and down and they may hide, but as long as there's a crab, there will be someone to catch it.

"The crabs will change all the time," said Steve Smith. "The watermen will come and go. Their number will come and go, and the number of pots will come and go. But the lesson here is the watermen will survive. All the variables, the things we can't control, that we deal with - that's what makes us who we are."

This is an American dream.

It's men looking out over a vast body of water and seeing a way to make a life. With hard work, quick thinking and dedication, they believe they can make that dream work. They can carve out their place on this beautiful body of water.

Chesapeake Country will always have men like these. Or so it seems.

If you enjoyed this story, you'll want to read Chesapeake writer Mick Blackistone's Dancing with the Tide: The Watermen, to be published by Cornell Maritime Press early next spring.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly