Islanders put their faith in another kind of Net

Online: Hoping to market their specialty on the Internet, residents team to form a co-op to sell the blue crabs they catch and the crab meat they pick.

April 18, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TYLERTON -- When the weather's good and the tide's right, Richard Evans sets out in his 14-foot skiff, motoring through a labyrinth of marshy rivulets from his home in Ewell, the largest of Smith Island's three villages.

Unlike many of his fellow islanders, Evans isn't tending crab pots or scraping for increasingly scarce oysters. Instead, the 56-year-old native of Maryland's only inhabited offshore island is headed to nearby Tylerton for a computer class that he hopes is the start of something new in a place where change never comes quickly.

Squeezed ever harder by a dwindling seafood industry, Evans and a handful of Smith Islanders have leveraged more than $100,000 in grants and technical assistance from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a variety of state and federal agencies, establishing what they say might be the ultimate in telecommuting -- an online crab business 12 miles from the mainland in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

"I really think this could be the future for Smith Island," Evans says. "This is something that could make a difference for watermen and their families."

Evans left his isolated hometown for a computer job in New Jersey when he was 21. His background has made him the de facto webmaster for the new venture.

The idea is for watermen's wives and others who have learned the necessary computer skills to run their own Web site, marketing the fresh crab meat -- and maybe cooked delicacies such as crab cakes -- straight from the source.

"Caught today. Steamed today. Picked today. Shipped today. That's as fresh as you're gonna get," says Louise Clayton, president of the Smith Island Computer Cooperative Inc., quoting the slogan that members hope will establish as the premier online source for premium crab meat.

The new cooperative, which has been in the planning stages for nearly three years, will begin simply -- marketing crab meat picked by the dozen or so members of Smith Island's 6-year-old crab pickers' co-op.

Later, if the venture goes well, members of the computer cooperative hope to land contracts to do everything from data processing to medical inscription to providing a call center for catalog companies. Organizers think the group could be flexible enough to let people in the crab business work seasonally, others full-time.

"We started out thinking that this would be work for people in the wintertime when there's nothing much on the water," says Tina Corbin, wife of waterman Ronnie Corbin. "Now we're thinking maybe the way this is going to be set up, it could be something year-round for people who aren't in the crab business."

`Things don't look good'

For people who are in the business, and that means just about everybody among the island's 300-plus residents, the future looks precarious.

Decreasing harvests show that the blue crab population is at its lowest in three decades, and watermen are concerned about new restrictions imposed by state officials intent on reducing the crab catch by 15 percent over the next three years.

"Things don't look good right now because there are so many restrictions," Clayton says. "We're starting out small; we don't want to get overwhelmed. Eventually, we'd like to be selling hard crabs and soft shells by the bushel and the dozen."

`Island is threatened'

Despite frequent tensions among island residents and environmentalists, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was an early and consistent supporter of the high-tech co-op. The foundation, which maintains a field research operation in Tylerton, has supplied 15 computers and office furniture and has paid miscellaneous expenses for nearly three years.

"Smith Island is a struggling community," says Bill Goldsborough, the foundation's senior scientist. "We see this as a lifeline, a way to survive and flourish. Their island is threatened by the decline of the bay. They need every advantage they can find."

`Things they can do'

Operating from Tylerton's one-room elementary school, which closed nearly six years ago and is leased from Somerset County for $1 a year, co-op members have followed the lead of Nancy Wallace, an expert in international marketing who works for the state Department of Agriculture.

Hired by the foundation, Wallace has worked part-time advising the group and arranging for training as the computer co-op's half-dozen members have gradually taken over the operation.

"They felt the world was passing them by," Wallace says. "Now, even on an isolated island, there are things they can do with computers. Smith Islanders are always entrepreneurs. They make things work, and they'll make this work."

`Exploring again'

Using grant money from the state Department of Housing and Community Development and from the Rural Development Center at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, co-op members hired Columbia computer consultant Michael Alloy.

Adworks, a Washington advertising agency, is donating marketing and advertising services as the co-op prepares to launch its Web site.

"Here you have the 12th generation of people on the island since John Smith came here as an explorer, and now they're exploring again," Alloy says. "They all learned boats at 5 years old, and now they're exploring the Internet at age 35, 45 or 65. They're going to be competing in a worldwide market."

Competitive market

Co-op members don't have to search far for competition. Last year in nearby Crisfield, two young businessmen turned a tidy profit using the Internet to market and ship blue crabs over the Internet.

"We need for people to understand that crabs are what we do and that we've got the best," Corbin says. "This might be a way to keep our young people from leaving the island for other jobs. You've got to be able to accept change."

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