National Geographic : 2005 Jun
Eskridge, I'll bet. He's got the get-up-and-go, and he hates anyone to beat him. If James doesn't make it, we might as well all pack up and leave." It was 3:15 a.m. when James's dad, James Sr., known about town as Ooker, met me at the Double Six coffee shop. "James says, d'ye get sea sick?" Ooker asked. "'Cause he's not comin' in till he's done, and it's gonna be blowin'." Ooker delivered me aboard James's 37-foot workboat, Rebecca Jean. James, 26, who's been crabbing since he was old enough to walk, briefly acknowledged me as he arranged baskets, bait, and crab pots in the glare of deck lights. Soon we were roaring out the channel with the rest of the Tangier fleet, churning the water to froth, spotlights stabbing the night sky. The east was barely gray when he located his first line of pots, a series of mesh-wire cubes tethered to a yellow-and-red cork marker on the surface. just them. It's also pollution, which is killing the crab's underwater grass habitat. But so far it's been easier to regulate watermen than pollution. Has James considered leaving home for weeks to work on tugboats like nearly 20 other young Tangiermen? "NO!" he replied, adding, "well, never say never, but it would have to get real bad before I'd give this up." He said he'd wanted this life since he was six, when his grandmother made him a miniature set of waterman oilskins. James may be the exception, as I learned from Cindy Parks, the state's commercial fishing license agent on Tangier Island. Parks estimates that out of some 170 licensed watermen on Tangier, maybe 100 crab for the entire summer. And only a few of those are young men, Parks said. "We're losing our young people. We had seven babies last year, and that was a big crop." All across the bay there may be no more than The latest ecological report card gave "Guess you want me to act normal, like I'm by myself?" James asked. With that, he flicked a switch to two big all-weather radio speakers: "HalleLUUUyah! HalleLUUUyah! JOY MAKES ME SING! You're listening to praise music, 102.5." Backing in full reverse and simulta neously wielding a long pole, James hooked his first cork and in the same instant fed its line into a hydraulic pulley that shrieked as it rocketed each pot, with a dozen or so trapped crabs, to the surface. Hoist the pot aboard, dump the crabs, bait with another fish, full throttle ahead another 30 yards or so to the next pot. Hook, pull, hoist, dump, bait. Pumped by the beat, slamming gears then sorting crabs by sex and by size, James ruled the deck with the power and precision of a prizefighter. He would fish 300 pots before the day was over-he was fishing about four pots to the song. Although he opposes their recommendations, James is well aware of scientists' concerns about the steep downward trend in the bay's blue crab population since 1990. Spawning females are at historic low levels. To reverse the decline, Mary land and Virginia have restricted the hours crabbers can work. Maryland has also increased size limits, and Virginia has put an additional 270 square miles of bay off-limits to summer time crabbers. Watermen say the problem isn't 38 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2005 Middle schoolers from Rockville, Maryland, head out to hunt for arrow heads and other marsh treasures dur ing a three-day field trip to Port Isobel, an education center on Tangier Sound run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a non profit environmental group. Educators and local watermen teach kids how to catch crabs, dredge for oysters, and appreciate the bay's natural bounty. The take-home message: Everyone lives upstream.