CHRISFIELD — CRISFIELD -- This waterman's town tucked into a marshy peninsula in Somerset County has seen boom and bust -- from the days when sea trout were as long as your arm and Eastern Seaboard wholesalers and restaurants clamored for all the soft crabs that could be shipped, to times such as these, when the seafood market is depressed and sea trout might not reach much past your elbow.
It is, some people here say, close to being the worst of times.
The packing houses still have some 200,000 pounds of soft crabs caught last year and frozen. The crabbers can bring in full loads daily, but the market price is well down.
For some captains, the charter boat business, which in better times kept Tangier Sound busy with fishermen, was off as much as 70 percent last year and is down nearly as much again this year.
Watermen who have spent their lives earning their living from Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, are taking shore jobs.
On July 4, the Department of Natural Resources opened the Charter Fishing Center at Somers Cove Marina, a $2.9 million step in a 11-year, $12 million investment in the Crisfield economy.
The Charter Fishing Center is a 109-slip facility consisting of three new piers, two state-of-the-art fish cleaning centers, comfort stations, showers, baths, laundry, pump-out stations and booking service.
"The focus of this facility is the charter fleet, a very important segment of the Crisfield economy," Bruce Gilmore, director of the DNR Boating Administration, said at an open house at the center Wednesday. "It is specifically to benefit them."
A marketing survey of the potential impact of the charter center is incomplete, said Pat Shanahan of the DNR public affairs office. But charter boat captains figure that at the least every charter boat customer who comes into town spends about $50 locally in addition to lodging and charter fees.
Shanahan said that centralization of the charter fleet will make it easier for people to book trips and hopefully will attract tourists and fishermen on their way to or from Ocean City or Assateague.
The charter center's telephone number is (800) 967-FISH.
"Call that number and we'll take care of it," Gilmore said. "Tell a friend about and come on down. The fishing is pretty good down here."
The charter center does not hold all the charter boats or head boats that operate out of Crisfield, and charters still can be booked through traditional methods.
The DNR undertook operation of Somers Cove Marina in 1985, Gilmore said, but has been dredging and building bulkheads at the site since 1980.
The marina also has facilities for transient and trailered boats and provides access to good fishing as close as 15 minutes from the docks.
"That money [that paid for the Somers Cove facility] is not from the general taxpayers," Gilmore said. "This money is from the boaters who buy the boats and pay the excise tax. Therefore, the people who are paying, the boaters, will benefit -- recreational boaters and charter boats. What we might say is from the boaters, for the boaters."
One charter captain who still operates out of the Crisfield Fishing Center down the harbor, has not moved into the new facility because there is a difference of several hundred dollars in the docking fees.
"Also, I have been in the same place for more than 30 years, and people know where to find me," the captain said. "I am not sure I am ready for that kind of a change."
Another captain, who grew up in Crisfield but until recently made a career with the state, said he thinks the new center will pay dividends.
"I already have one 800 number, but another one can't hurt," he said. "And if this center brings in new people, then I am all for it."