Changing Culture: Watermen in the Chesapeake

In Journey 2 we have continued to explore the Chesapeake watershed further, studying the ecology and geology of the Bay. Our journey from Susquehanna State Park to Chincoteague Island has shown us some of the varying landforms and waterways of the encompassing Chesapeake Bay. Throughout our trip we have had the opportunity to talk to many informed people who work and live in and on the Bay. One thing the Chesapeake is not short of is watermen. Watermen are the men and women who work commercially on the water: fishing, crabbing, and harvesting oysters to make their living. The stories and experiences that the watermen have to share can give us a peek into the various changes going on in the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay’s adjusting ecology and geology cause this watermen culture to to adapt along with the shifting environment of this watershed.

Scientifically, most of the environmental changes and issues in the Bay stem from current and impending climate change and sea level rise. This has led to increased storm events, flooding, shoreline erosion and subsidence, just to name a few consequences. Some of the Bay’s islands are even disappearing underwater. The story of Holland Island is tragic. Once a thriving community of watermen, the Island literally broke apart due to issues with erosion and subsidence. Inhabitants were forced to move away in the early 20th century. The last standing house on Holland Island unfortunately deteriorated and collapsed in late 2010. Holland Island’s fate may be a foreshadowing to other Bay communities, such as Smith Island.

Smith Island is a bay island in between Maryland and Virginia, only accessible by boat. It is known best for it’s famed Smith Island Cake, which is the state dessert of Maryland. Smith Island inhabits less then 300 residents, and is centered around it’s Methodist religion and it’s watermen culture and economy. Unfortunately, this community is beginning to see effects of land and water change. This has a direct correlation to the culture and economy of the island’s watermen. Matt Whitbeck, a head biologist at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, says that Smith Islanders will respond and leave if necessary, only by force. These people have an optimistic outlook on the health of their island and the Bay.

Other watermen, who may not be as seasoned, have a different approach and outlook towards the changing Chesapeake. Tim Devine owns Barren Island Oysters, a young and sustainable aquaculture farming pursuit. Instead of harvesting wild oysters, Tim aids in the reproduction, fertilization of the oysters, finally collecting the mature bivalves. While Devine believes in the reasoning behind these environmental changes, he has to uphold a glass half-full mindset towards his business and it’s flood zone location.

Kate Livie, Director of Education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, states that as these small Chesapeake islands disappear, so does their culture and community. The watermen of the Chesapeake face many future challenges, and it is up to them to respond and adapting to the changing ecology and geology of the watershed.

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