For the better part of three centuries, the Chesapeake Bay's bounty sustained Anne Arundel County watermen and their families, spawning small fishing villages where generations of young men inherited a lifeon the water.
William R. "Jimmy" Cantler followed his father and seven brothers 34 years ago to a life on the bay, harvesting oysters,clams and crabs from clear waters off largely untouched shores near St. Margarets, just northeast of Annapolis.
On Tenthouse Creek, off the West River, Woodfield Fish and OysterCo. hired more than 100 workers each winter to shuck oysters in the cement block buildings the Woodfield brothers, Herman and William, built in 1917.
And just 20 years ago in Galesville, a tiny South County community with one main street leading to the water, some three dozen oystermen steered sturdy workboats out each morning to ply the waters of the Chesapeake.
To the watermen, more people just meant bigger markets for a seemingly endless supply of oysters, crabs and animpressive array of fish.
Today, the population boom means something else entirely to county watermen -- it threatens their very way of life. Just three decades ago, 3,000 men made their living as commercial fishermen along county shores. Today, the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association estimates, 300 remain.
More people mean more development, industry and farms sending pollutants into the waters, choking life from the potential catch. The relentless migration to thewaterfront, suddenly fashionable after 300 years, pushes prices beyond the reach of watermen and makes it hard to find even a place that allows workboats.
These days, in St. Margarets, Jimmy Cantler watches in dismay as the silt from nearby road construction muddies the water of Mill Creek, where he and his brothers and father once docked their fishing boats.
That's not the only sign that out-of-towners have discovered the once sparsely populated shores.
Cantler never dreamed that the Riverside Inn he bought so he could sell his seafoodand dock his boat would turn from a rough bar where pool-playing erupted into fistfights into a popular seafood restaurant that finally drew him off the water.
Watermen still unload their crabs at his pier, but county land-use restrictions forbid them to tie workboats there permanently.
At Woodfield, the last county plant where workers still shuck oysters and freeze and sell fish, the number of shuckers has dwindled to about 10 each winter. There are fewer oysters and fewer people who want to shuck them. Ice, not fish, takes up most of thespace in the room-size freezers. Ice sales account for 90 percent ofbusiness now at the plant run by Bill Woodfield, Herman Woodfield's grandson.
And in the predawn hours each day in Galesville, only one workboat heads out to greet the sunrise. As commercial fishing has become more regulated, the owner of that lone boat, 36-year-old Norman Scotten, now counts on the hearty blue crab that seems immune, for now, to the disease and pollutants that overwhelmed fish and oysters.
"It's gone. It's over with," says the Galesville native, the fifth and probably last generation of his family to work the water. "If it weren't for crabs, I wouldn't make it. That's for sure."
The sun shimmers on the water a few miles off Sandy Point. On the 46-foot Dawn II, Larry Simns hunches over and plucks clams from a conveyorbelt. The clams keep coming, turning Simns' hands raw, as the rig dredges off starboard side.
Beneath the water's calm surface, pollution, disease and toxic chemicals wage a battle against fish and plants in the shallow water. Simns' thoughts never wander far from the battle. He pauses to point out a place on shore, near one of the county's sewage treatment plants, where a pipeline spews effluent into the bay.
"We see what happens every day," laments the 53-year-old clammer, who comes from a long line of watermen on his mother's side. "That used to be one of the best productive oyster bars right there. It doesn't reproduce any more."
The plant's effluent is just a fraction of all the treated sewage dumped into streams and rivers that flow to the bay each day -- more than one billion gallons. In one year with average rainfall, nearly 150 million pounds of nitrogen and 14 million pounds of phosphorus pour in from municipal sewage treatment plants, industrial dischargers and agricultural runoff, according to the Maryland Sea Grant College at the University of Maryland.
In massive amounts, nutrients fertilize algae that rob plant and marine life of essential light and oxygen. Add to that tons of sediment, herbicides and fertilizers and several thousand varieties of chemical wastes that drain from a six-state area into the bay. And more people in that drainage area -- in Anne Arundel County and as far away as New York-- mean more of the same.
In Anne Arundel, developers hustle to keep up with demand. Since 1987, more than 400 new waterfront homes oradditions have been built each year.