Holding fast to way of life

Despite declining harvests on the bay and the struggle to stay afloat, some watermen are reluctant to leave their tradition behind.

August 23, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

NEAVITT - For Guy Spurry, these last couple of months snatching fat, skittering blue crabs from the waters of Broad Creek have been enough - enough for a modest profit, enough to soothe his spirit, enough to continue clinging to this precarious livelihood.

His days begin before daylight as his 40-foot workboat, the Voyageur, rumbles out near the mouth of the Choptank River, where satellite positioning equipment and a depth-finder help locate an underwater trench he likes. Spurry will spend the next eight hours netting crabs that have been lured to his trotline by salted chunks of veal.

A good day lately has meant 10 bushels of crabs. An average haul is five or six bushels. After burning a few gallons of diesel fuel and using $20 worth of bait, he could clear $500.

"This summer's been good," says Spurry, 39, who left school at 16 to work on the water. "This can be a fun job when you're catching crabs. If not, it seems like the dumbest thing anybody ever came up with. Next year, it might be terrible. That's the way the business is."

He is one of perhaps a thousand people in Maryland who are still making a living as watermen, chasing crabs from early April to late fall and, in the cold months, searching for what's left of the oyster population.

Many have reluctantly abandoned this life in the face of diminishing Chesapeake Bay harvests, among them Spurry's father and older brother. They quit in the late 1980s to form a thriving seafood and restaurant businesses.

The good news, for Spurry and others, is that this year seems to be better than last year, and last year's yield - 26.4 million pounds of crab - was the best in four years. This season, the take through June was nearly double that of the same period a year ago.

On paper, there are more than 6,100 licensed crabbers in Maryland, down about 500 in the past decade. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, puts the number of watermen in the state at 6,000 to 7,500.

However, state officials and others say many who hold licenses are working only part time or not going out at all.

A study by Doug Lipton, a resource economist with the University of Maryland's Sea Grant Program, found that about 3,600 people reported income from crabbing or any other type of fishing to the Department of Natural Resources in 2002.

However, only 862 of them made $10,000 or more for the year, Lipton said.

When a federal grant was offered last winter for struggling watermen, 816 qualified for two payments of $500. The stipends were designed to help those who had worked at least 100 days over the previous two years.

"The bottom line is that we've clearly seen a decrease in active crabbing over the last decade," says Lynn Fegley, a DNR researcher. "We see the numbers decline for all types of commercial licenses."

Last year's oyster harvest, 174,000 pounds, was the worst ever in Maryland and drew about 70 boats willing to go out looking for the ravaged bivalves. The collapse in what once was the bay's most important fishery places more pressure on blue crabs, scientists say.

George O'Donnell, a former waterman and Queen Anne's County councilman, has little hope for a turnaround.

`End of ... industry'

"A serious person can only say that the state of Maryland is out of the oyster business," O'Donnell says. "We're watching the end of the seafood industry. It's already a hand-to-mouth existence for our watermen. It's a struggle, just to make a living on the water."

Charles "Chuck" Marsh, a 34-year-old Smith Island native who worked on the water nearly half his life, took a job last fall as a crew member on a tug boat, nudging petroleum barges on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington.

"I like the steady money and the benefits," Marsh says. "I miss being my own boss and being out on my own boat. I had it in my mind for a long time to do this. I just got tired of the uncertainty of it year to year."

For many of those who have quit, it is a life that tantalizes whenever there's a slight up-tick in harvests for crabs and oysters, the bay's traditional bulwarks.

"Last fall we had plenty of crabs, an overabundance of crabs, and it's continued to be good," Simns says. "I think what you see is that people come and go. They might take other jobs to tide them over until the situation improves. We're always watermen."

That kind of flexibility could be a mixed blessing, Lipton says. Inactive watermen, who sometimes hang onto their licenses years after changing careers, could rapidly change the economics of the industry by returning after a particularly good harvest, he says.

"If prices are good and there are a couple good years, people want to come back," Lipton says. "Over time, we need to come up with a way to whittle down the number of unused licenses. It would be better for the resource and for the watermen who are out there working full time."

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