“Watermen have been a part of Maryland’s history as long as there has been a state,” says Michael Schultz of the Chesapeake Conservancy.
“Watermen are even depicted on the state’s seal,” he adds. “Watermen’s stories working waterfronts, boats, and seasonal rhythms are a part of Maryland’s fabric. It’s hard to imagine a Chesapeake without watermen, but it could happen. Stocks of fish and shellfish have steadily declined due to environmental and market pressures, and the numbers of watermen and people that work in the fishing industry are also declining.
“The fleet of skipjacks working the bay used to number in the hundreds; it can now be counted on two hands.”
In fact, the decrease in the bay’s animal populations, coupled with the increase in regulations that result in the loss of a way of life, was the threat cited by the Chesapeake Conservancy and Coastal Heritage Alliance, which nominated the watermen for this year’s list.
An unusual nomination because this is a population, not a site, Endangered Maryland’s board members hope that the inclusion of watermen on the list will encourage Marylanders to talk about the continued existence of these fixtures in our state.
“Significant communities like the watermen—which are defined by a shared industry—have contributed artifacts that define us: skipjacks, crab scrapes, tongs, the architecture of picking sheds, docks, and the feel of working waterfronts,” explains Schultz.
“Many of their contributions, such as the many small towns and secluded islands where Elizabethan English can still be detected in the locals’ speech, are not tangible, but are no less valuable to our shared history and culture.”
Speaking on behalf of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, Mick Blackistone notes, “The watermen represent a unique subculture of Maryland society going back to the days of the first settlers. Their techniques for harvesting seafood have carried on for well over a century, when new boat designs, tools, and gear made for greater catches and a strong economy.”
He adds, “Waterfront towns such as Crisfield were literally built on top of mounds of oyster shells, and many roads were made with shell. The skipjack vessels were the first to dredge oysters under sail, and the Chesapeake fleet was known throughout the world as the largest and only fleet of skipjacks anywhere.
“Watermen learn their trade, for the most part, from other watermen, mainly family members. It is handed down from one generation to another. It is not a trade that can be learned from books, so protecting the traditions, stories, and history of these men and women is critically important.”
Like others, Blackistone is concerned about the age of watermen today—most are in their 50s and 60s.
“There are young men entering the industry,” he says, “but it is difficult because of regulations, cost of licenses, boats, and gear, and for some young men and women, a difficult time making ends meet if a harvest is off or the weather is bad.”
To help with the watermen’s plight, Schultz suggests that concerned citizens, among other things, buy Maryland seafood, take a tour of the bay with a waterman, and support the restoration of the Chesapeake.