National Geographic : 2005 Jun
2,500 watermen crabbing full-time now, down from an estimated 10,000 baywide a few decades ago. Tangier has held on better than many other waterman communities, but one has to wonder whether a generation from now, with or without their covenant, James Eskridge and others will still be out on the water hoisting crabs. A couple of hundred miles north of Tangier Island, I parked my car beside the barn on Har old Wissler's neatly kept farm in Voganville, Penn sylvania. If he and Eskridge met, they'd probably get on well: Farmers and watermen share a nat ural sympathy born of their independent life styles and wariness of government intrusion. But farming intrudes heavily on the ability of places like Tangier to make a living. For more than a decade, agricultural researchers around the bay have been documenting how farming even with the best controls-still "leaks" far too much pollution. The bay today has become the ecological equivalent of a morbidly obese per son, force-fed nitrogen and phosphorus. Exces sive amounts of these nutrients and sediments have depleted the water's oxygen and killed about two-thirds of underwater grass beds vital to crabs, fish, and waterfowl. "You have to use the land so intensively now to make it on these small acres," said Wissler, 62, who raises corn, barley, soybeans, beef cattle, and a quarter million chickens a year, all on his mod est 97-acre Lancaster County farm. Farmers here have doubled their use of manure in the past sev eral decades, adding more crops and animals to increase their profits. Such productivity is why Lancaster County alone yields enough meat, milk, and eggs to feed more than half the people living in the bay's watershed. But this "fat of the land" translates directly to an over-fatted bay, the bay a failing grade of 27out of 100.