Harold Robinson has made his living out of Wingate Harbor in Dorchester County for all of his good years. He knows every piece of the bottom in the waters he works near Hearns Cove on Chesapeake Bay. At 64, Robinson is one of the last working oystermen around these parts. And he knows his days on the water are numbered. Not for nothing has he called his boat Limited — a reference to the restrictions the state has placed on what and when watermen can harvest.
“They get you back to the wall, where it’s just so hard to make a living,” Robinson said as he stopped in the marina’s office to get a part for his boat. “Some winters, we didn’t even work at all.”
The ranks of oystermen in Maryland have long been dwindling. But now the harbors and marinas that once housed their boats are going, too.
Maryland and Virginia have lost dozens of working marinas, oyster-shucking houses, crab-picking places and boat repair shops during the last half-century. Some marina owners sold to developers, unable to make a living from the few remaining oystermen who docked there. Others couldn’t afford to repair damages from ever more severe storms as sea level rose. Still others simply couldn’t afford or didn’t want to spend money on the maintenance, letting the facilities slip into the sea after years of neglect.
Now, a team of federal and state officials as well as watermen, folklorists and boat builders are trying to stem the tide of loss. They are taking stock of the remaining working waterfronts to determine how to preserve them.
“These places have gone through some really difficult times,” said Tom Murray, marine business and coastal development specialist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “If you show a legitimate concern for all of these businesses, then people are really interested.”
The effort began in Virginia in 2007, with VIMS and the Virginia Sea Grant office seeking to broaden the definition of a working waterfront, taking an inventory of where the places were, and trying to figure out how to help them remain in business. It moved to Maryland in 2008, with a one-year working-waterfront commission appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Now, Sea Grant is taking that work a step further with a pilot program to inventory the working waterfronts in the Choptank River watershed. With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia’s Sea Grant team members began their search last year. They found close to 80, a surprisingly large number considering the development pressure on the area.
Some are boat builders. Others are places like Wingate, where watermen like Robinson can keep their boats for a reasonable fee. Also included on the list are Maryland’s remaining crab-processing facilities, including J.?M. Clayton Co., in the heart of Cambridge. Several of those interested parties gathered recently at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels to discuss the findings as well as the next steps.
“In Maryland, specifically, there’s a sense of place in these locations and a sense of loss,” said Vicky Carrasco, a coastal communities specialist with Maryland’s Sea Grant office in College Park. “It’s really a matter of understanding what they bring to the local communities. We’re trying to see what’s happened in other states and trying to learn from them.”
So much of Maryland’s identity as a state is wrapped up in the places where land and water meet, said Michelle Zacks, the maritime museum’s folklorist. It’s in the steamed crabs that we eat, the beaches we visit and the working heritage of the state’s fishermen.
“It is a physical space that provides the possibility for these kinds of cultural traditions to have a real life,” said Zacks, who is planning on building an ethnographic map of the state’s working waterfronts. “If museums are the only place where the traditions have a life, then it’s sort of like a performance piece, or a bell jar.”
In that sense, Maryland seems to be ahead of states such as Virginia, Florida and Maine that have lost many of their working waterfronts to development. Maine marine advocates have been working to reverse that tide, trying to pass two bills in Congress that would protect working waterfronts much in the way states and the federal governments preserve land — with tax incentives. Both those bills have failed to advance in Congress.
Even in wealthy Talbot County, which is in the Choptank’s watershed, watermen still eke out a living oystering and crabbing. The county offers discounted slips to watermen at its marinas. Some towns, such as Oxford, do as well.
“There’s nothing in Virginia for watermen like what you have in Talbot County,” said Don McCann, one of the land-use planners Sea Grant hired to do Maryland’s inventory. “I was astounded at the help the government is providing. As far as I’m concerned, you guys are in good shape here.”
The coalition in Maryland and Virginia is part of a nationwide group trying to recognize the significance of working waterfronts, and will be working together again to try for federal protections. Called the National Working Waterfront Network, the group will be meeting next year in Tacoma, Wash., to discuss their agenda.
The next part of the agenda could be some funding mechanism to help working waterfront owners maintain their properties. Even with tight budgets, said DNR Coastal Planning Coordinator Chris Cortina, the state is committed to this project. “This is just scratching the surface,” Cortina said. “We’re committed as a coastal program to funding projects like this.”