Bay cleansing imperils a way of life

ON THE BAY

April 09, 1994|By TOM HORTON

TYLERTON -- It's not fish ye're buyin, it's men's lives, Sir Walter Scott wrote of English peasant fishermen some two centuries ago.

He could as well have meant the crab meat that ladies here on Smith Island, Maryland's only offshore community, will begin picking here in a few more weeks.

Even considered only as seafood, Smith Island crab meat is a treasure-- free of shell, loaded with backfin, priced modestly at $8 a pound.

But there is so much more to the place than crab meat can measure. This is a crab culture: centuries of work and worth and lore, jokes and songs and prayer, a people's history and survival, bound inextricably to nature and the Chesapeake.

It is unusual enough that the state recently invested more than $300,000 to create a visitors center and museum here. This is a laudable project, but fraught with irony. Even as government puts a museum here, officialdom also endangers the living culture of the island -- and all in the name of a clean and healthy bay.

Total dependence on the Chesapeake is both the charm and the fate of Smith Island, and a love-hate relationship for its women.

CRACK! WHACK! CRUNCH! The sounds of dismemberment and evisceration came from a backyard shanty one hot afternoon late last summer. Inside, three pickers -- mother and daughter, and an 82-year-old widow -- were transforming heaps of bright orange crabs into mounds of glistening white meat.

A young grandchild played nearby while another, about 10, practiced cracking out claw meat. One woman chatted on a local phone "conference call" with other pickers as she worked.

Another hummed the lyrics of a song she had finished for the coming watermen's banquet, "what Elvis would a'sung to his wife if he had to catch crabs for her to pick."

Oh well, a-bless my soul

What do I see

Virginia police boats comin' after me

I pull my (crab) scrapes right out of the mud

I'm a wreck: I'm all shook up.

Other offerings, based like the first on everyday experiences of the islanders, included crabby rewrites of Sonny and Cher ("We Got Crabs, Babe"), Julio and Willy ("To All the Crabs I've Caught Before") and "Just a-Crabbin' in the Rain."

To passers-by, the scene was all charm. Of course, they hadn't been up since 3 a.m., when the picking began. Nor would they be there until 9 p.m. when the long day, sandwiched around caring for home and husband and children, finally ended.

"Look, this is not the best of jobs -- you stink, you sweat, you're rotten," says the picker/songwriter. "I've often dreamed of having a lady's job, and dress up and go to an office. This ain't no lady's job, but out here it's our only job," she concludes amid cracks and whacks.

Then: "In a way, I really like to do this. It gives you self-worth and independence. No one wants to be dependent on a man for everything."

"I'd be in heart ['depressed' in island parlance] if I had to go to my husband for every cent," another picker chimes in.

"I guess I could always go back to crochetin,' " chuckles the widow.

Until now, picking has been a perfect cottage industry, turning the "free" by-catch of hardcrabs from watermen's traditional softcrabbing into cash, and fitting nicely around the close-knit family life here.

For years, it was how families afforded extras. But as winter incomes from oystering and fishing have fallen, the women's picking money has come for most households to represent the margin of survival.

It is not stretching it a bit to say that ending it would depopulate Tylerton, one of the island's three towns, almost overnight. But an end seems possible since the state health department's decision in 1992 to make island pickers use the same steamers, stainless steel, industrial refrigeration and other techniques as mainland commercial operations.

I find it hard to disagree with the state's wanting uniform seafood standards, even if local crab meat has never been documented to cause a health problem.

But the health department, which gave islanders a year to comply, and a "final" 90-day extension as of last week, has vastly underestimated the difficulty of meeting the requirements. It means getting loans or grants in the neighborhood of $80,000; obtaining land on a marshy island where it is scarce; and constructing a building 10 miles offshore, where every brick and bag of concrete must be hauled in small boats.

And we're talking about a population of less than 500, further divided among three separate towns, none with any government other than the Methodist church; people whose incomes are, for the most part lower-middle class and shrinking.

Dennis Hebert of the Small Business Development Center at Salisbury State University is helping the islanders, and says if there is one thing he would have the bureaucracies better understand: "It is that time is different on Smith Island than the mainland. A year is not a long time."

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