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A way of life gone with the tide

July 1, 1993

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-n8QfUpF2fO.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘A Chesapeake Bay waterman uses hand tongs to harvest oysters.’);

As all of us in the Rock River Valley know, the industrial base that once characterized this entire region has been seriously eroded in recent years by the closing of several large manufacturing plants. Work that for generations was done by highly skilled craftsmen has been shipped overseas or to areas in the United States that are presumed to offer a better bottom line of the company.

With the closing of these well-known industrial facilities has come the loss of hundreds of well-paying jobs for skilled workers. It is doubtful Rockford will ever regain the manufacturing prominence it once enjoyed. It is a way of life that, in all probability, is gone with the wind. A similar situation exists in the area of the Chesapeake Bay.

I recently returned from a visit to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I lived for almost 30 years; 20 miles from the Chesapeake Bay and about 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately, in addition to my home “in town,” I also had a getaway cottage on the Nanticoke River, which is a major tributary to the Bay. There I learned to tong for oysters and the technique of catching blue crabs by the bushel basket full. I considered myself fortunate to get to know and be accepted by a breed of unique men known as watermen, those who make their living from the water tonging oysters, trot lining crabs, and catching the delicious rockfish (striped bass).

During my recent visit, I was saddened to note that these watermen who are direct descendants of this country’s first settlers are in danger of becoming extinct, as is their way of life and irreplaceable, closely-knit society.

Watermen fish for rockfish in the spring, use half-mile trotlines baited every three feet with salted eel or beef lips to harvest the delectable blue crab during the summer and early fall, and catch oysters during the winter months. The catches of crabs and rockfish just barely pay the day-to-day expenses during the spring and summer, and they rely on the oysters during the winter to keep their heads above water. There is an old saying around the docks in the harbors of the Chesapeake Bay that if you don’t make it on oysters by Christmas (prices are always higher during the holiday season), “you ain’t gonna make it.”

Unfortunately, the supply of oysters in the Chesapeake has been slowly dwindling during the past 30 years. The few bivalves that are still available to the waterman today are not enough to pay for the gasoline his boat will use each day on the water.

The reasons for the demise of the famous Chesapeake Bay oyster are many and include the invasion of two diseases of oysters that took hold in the Bay about three decades ago—pollution and over-fishing.

Over the years, many watermen had the attitude of “Get ’em today and to hell with tomorrow,” and that they are “God’s arsters” and when they are gone, the Lord will somehow create a new supply. This belief in divine intervention has yet to be realized.

I was immediately aware that drastic changes had occurred in the years I had been gone. The harbor at the appropriately named village of Bivalve is near my former cottage and has about 40 boat slips. When I left several years ago, 35 of those slips were fully occupied by the specially designed work boats used by the watermen. When I visited the harbor last month, only two workboats were noted. All the rest of the slips were occupied by fashionable sailboats and expensive, well-kept power boats.

I ran into an old waterman friend of mine who was sitting idly on the dock in the harbor and talked with him at length. He told me that most of his colleagues had given up the profession their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers had pursued and had “gone to town” to try to find another line of work. But, he added, most had been unsuccessful as “watering was what they do best, and it was hard to take to regular jobs.”

Watermen are inherently suspicious of outsiders, and for several years they kept a close eye on me. They knew I was a university professor who wrote books and magazine articles about life in and around the Bay, and there was an invisible line that separated us. Then one day I took a couple of bushels of crabs I had caught to the dock to sell to the buyers from Baltimore and Washington. And after I had been paid, I told the crab broker I needed a box of crab line bait. I had been paying $35 for 40 pounds of frozen bovine lips, but this time the crab buyer said, “That’s too much. I only charge ‘our people’ $20.”

I knew that, at last, I had finally been accepted into the fraternity of the watermen, and it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

Like the many highly skilled, industrial jobs of the Rockford area that are gone with the wind, the highly skilled profession of the waterman appears to be gone with the tide.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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