Crabs few, despair abundant Smith Island: Hard times are being blamed on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which supports restrictions on watermen's catches, but the island doesn't want to lose the foundation's education center

May 12, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

TYLERTON -- The usual signs of spring have appeared here on Smith Island. The "snowball bush" by Miss Virginia Evans' house is blooming. Pesky gnats fill the air when the breeze dies down.

But the season also has brought signs of anger and despair to this 400-year-old fishing community in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Four red-and-white billboards have been erected by the island's watermen, attacking the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for its advocacy of government restrictions on their livelihood.

After a harsh winter, the island's lifeblood, the blue crab, has been scarce. Six weeks into the crabbing season, the "pots," or traps, set in the bay around the island remain almost empty. Many watermen complain bitterly about the Annapolis-based environmental group's endorsement of state catch limits imposed last fall, which cost them money at a time when harvests were booming.

"SMITH ISLAND'S WAY OF LIFE WILL SOON BE OVER DUE TO THE CHESAPEAKE BAY FOUNDATION. PLEASE DO NOT SUPPORT THEM," says a sign nailed to an old crab shanty.

That one is in Tylerton, the smallest of the three villages that make up the island. Similar messages have been posted on the waterfront in Ewell, the largest community and the main destination of day-tripping sightseers, due to begin arriving soon aboard tour boats from Crisfield.

The signs elicit little public debate in Ewell, where, with little prompting, watermen denounce state officials and the foundation as they refuel their boats after another day of meager crab harvests.

But the broadsides have divided Tylerton, where the bay foundation has had a presence for nearly 20 years. It operates a $750,000 education center that annually draws about 2,500 middle and high school students from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Guided by foundation educators, the visitors canoe in the island's tidal marshes.

Waverly Evans, 69, owns the shanty in Tylerton where an anti-foundation sign is posted. It faces the two houses converted for use as the education center.

"If they leave us alone," he said of the foundation, "maybe we'll take them down."

Foundation educators discussed the discord over crabbing limits with the youngsters, said someone accompanying a student group last week.

Foundation officials asked that the signs be taken down and warned that the tension could lead them to close the center. If that happens, some islanders fear, the village will lose its daily passenger ferry service, its only store and, perhaps, its very existence.

"We certainly don't want to leave Smith Island," said William C. Baker, the foundation's president. "Yet, if the community doesn't support us, we can't stay. That's clear."

The dispute led to a meeting two weeks ago that was punctuated by angry exchanges between watermen and two foundation representatives from Annapolis. A couple of watermen stormed out of the meeting in the village's Methodist church, one of them cursing the minister and the rest of those present before slamming the door behind him.

Such behavior is unheard of in Tylerton, a deeply religious community. The man who uttered the profanities reportedly apologized, but the tension remains.

"It digs in my skin," said Janice Marshall, a waterman's wife who defends the foundation. "We have never resorted to putting our feelings on billboards. Some people feel like the bay foundation is their enemy. Well, the Bible says to pray for your enemies."

Bitterness also lingers from an arson fire in the fall that destroyed a storage shed in Tylerton that the foundation used. The case remains under investigation, but many watermen feel they stand accused because the fire occurred after they had criticized the bay foundation for its support of the state's emergency crabbing restrictions.

The controversy comes amid hard times for Tylerton. Residents have suffered a series of setbacks and indignities that have fueled their frustration.

Recently, a barge brought three tanker truck loads of partly treated sewage from the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. The waste was needed to restore beneficial sewage-treating bacteria at Tylerton's wastewater treatment plant, according to the Maryland Environmental Service, which runs the plant. But angry islanders demanded that the shipments be stopped.

Even developments that might seem positive bring little joy. A new crab-picking cooperative is nearing completion, resolving a four-year dispute with state health officials over island women's practice of selling crab meat they prepare in their homes. Federal and state agencies supplied $238,000 in grants for the plant, yet the women resent having to build it at all, pointing out that their crab meat has always passed state health tests.

The worst blow may be the imminent closing of the village's school. Enrollment has fallen from 25 in the mid-1970s to seven in grades two through seven. Somerset County school officials decided last fall to close it unless there were at least 10 students. Instead, there are likely to be two.

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