In the world of the watermen

Window on a work culture: Riding the wake of a Chesapeake Bay crabber

The cold drizzle falling at 5 a.m. doesn't faze Homer Tyler as he fires up the diesel engine on his 31-foot boat.

Already two hours into his workday, the seasoned waterman bustles about the open vessel, checking the engine, net, and gear. Finally, he pulls in the lines that secure the craft to the weather-worn pier in Little Boat Harbor, located just off Main Street in Crisfield, Md.

Easing out of the slip, Mr. Tyler sets a course past the slumbering town and into the murky darkness of the Chesapeake Bay.

"The earlier ya go out, the sooner ya get back," he explains, dispelling any notion of a competitive advantage in crabbing at dawn. "You get used to it."

His routine on this spring morning is one Tyler has performed countless times since he left school to pursue his fortunes on the water. Six days a week, he shoves off before dawn to ply the brackish shallows along Maryland's Eastern Shore in search of the state's official crustacean: the Callinectes sapidus, or blue crab.

"You pretty much need to have it in your blood - grow up around it to really understand it," he says of the crabbing life in his soft-spoken, melodic accent, common to many of those who hail from the region. "I quit school in the eighth grade. It's what I always wanted to do ... follow in my father's footsteps."

For generations, a family trade

In fact, Tyler, a fifth-generation waterman, is following a rich crabbing tradition that has provided a livelihood to thousands of families living along the bay since the early 1800s.

When crabs are running, watermen like Tyler can pull in $2,000 a week.

Today, demand for crabmeat has never been stronger. But the industry is being pinched on a number of fronts, including from a younger generation reluctant to take up the call, and from conservationists who warn that the crab population is threatened by overharvesting.

The industry also is reeling from a recent flood of foreign crabmeat, which has provoked crab processors in five states to petition for federal relief through import restrictions. (Story, page 16.)

But on this day, Tyler is not concerned about such matters. It's the tide that worries him.

"It's low," Tyler mutters as he maneuvers his boat - which he christened "Dawn Michele" after his first daughter - into about three feet of water. He lets the boat idle about 100 yards off a grassy, low-lying island. It's here he will spend the next seven hours scraping for the molting blue crabs, known during this stage as soft shells.

He is not optimistic about the day's haul. "The tide's wrong, the weather's wrong, everything's wrong."

By this time, the drizzle has whipped into a driving rain. Undaunted by the weather, or the tidal pulls, Tyler slips into his yellow foul-weather gear, black rubber boots, and cap, and steps onto the deck of the boat.

After the 'beautiful swimmer'

The blue crab, or "beautiful swimmer," for its Greek name, makes its home from New Jersey to Florida and along the Gulf Coast to Texas. While harvested throughout these areas, more than half the annual domestic catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay, during the season that runs from April 1 to Nov. 30.

Last year, Maryland's 6,000 commercial watermen hauled in more than 32 million pounds of crab with a dockside value of $34.5 million, according to the state's Department of Natural Resources. The state's total crabbing industry generates around $100 million annually. Watermen from Virginia hauled in slightly less than their Maryland counterparts.

So far this year, anecdotal evidence suggests a stronger catch, with estimated yields closer to 40 million pounds in Maryland alone.

While it's a positive sign, the scientific community still concludes the bay's blue-crab fishery is being fully exploited, and may actually be "overexploited," notes Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Annapolis, Md.

"It's really by the virtue of the fact that this critter, the blue crab, is quite resilient biologically that the population hasn't collapsed," Mr. Goldsborough says.

Over the past 15 years, he explains, crabbing has increased fivefold on the bay, without a corresponding yield. "Crabbers are working harder and harder for less and less," Goldsborough says.

He suggests that to maintain a more stable population, the amount of time crabbers are actively using their nets should gradually be reduced by 30 precent to 40 percent. "If we're able to do a better job of managing the fishery, it will benefit both the crab and the crabber."

Tyler agrees "there are a lot more crabbers than there used to be." And he appreciates the 1996 Maryland state law that requires crabbers to choose either Sunday or Monday as a day off. "Seven days was too much," he says. "We never got to rest. It's pretty competitive." But he adds, "there are plenty of crabs. It goes up and down each year. It's looking good this year."

Tyler "scrapes" for crabs. And he expects at least as good a haul as 1999, when he cleared $25,000 during the 21-week soft-shell season.

There are watermen who use crab pots, tending up to 500-600 pots a day. Tyler says they make more money than scrapers, but adds: "It's a big responsibility, and there's a lot more expense."

Tyler has found a way to supplement his income: Last winter, he pulled in about $5,000 by oystering.

"Crabbing is easier," he says, shaking out the 12-foot-long trawl net suspended by a boom.

He pushes it over the side of the boat, releases the hydraulics and the net splashes into the water.

Lazy circles

For the next 10 minutes, Tyler steers the boat in a wide, lazy circle, scraping up all the grass-dwelling inhabitants that find themselves in the path of the net's five-foot-wide mouth.

"The first two or three drags will be your best of the day," he explains, noting that sometimes watermen will race each other to a promising site.

He pulls in the first haul of the morning, and dumps the contents of the net into a culling tray positioned on the side of the boat.

The mass of sea grass suddenly comes alive with hundreds and hundreds of crabs - from seven-inch-long mature beasts raising their blue-tinted claws like a football referee signaling a touchdown, to tiny transparent baby crabs, crawling around like spiders.

"It looks like a lot, but it's no good," Tyler says as he starts to toss most of the crabs and grass back into the water, along with the occasional flounder, shrimp, and long-snouted gar.

A flock of gulls trailing the boat dive for the exposed morsels. "They're not ready yet."

Finding the 'keepers'

Tyler only wants crabs in the soft-shell stage, blue crabs that have either just molted or are about to do so. With a glance, Tyler can tell if a crab is about to outgrow its shell: a thin pink band circling its back flippers means it will molt within a week. A red band indicates less than two days.

He sorts these marked crabs into separate bushel baskets, cracking their claws first so they won't fight each other.

The ones that have already "peeled," or will do so soon, he tosses into tanks of bay water.

At the end of the day, Tyler will unload his daily catch into a long, shallow float, which he rents in a shed on the grounds of the Handy Co., a soft-shell-crab processing plant in Crisfield.

The crabs will remain in the tanks, flushed continually with bay water, until they molt.

At that time the crab puffs up, and slowly backs out of its shell like someone taking off an iron-starched evening gown.

The crab must then be removed from the tank and processed within two hours before it starts to harden again.

This is the task that rouses Tyler, and some 250 other other watermen who rent floats here, out of bed every morning at 3:30 a.m.

A broadening market

The market for soft-shell crabs has grown tremendously in recent years, says Carol Haltaman, Handy's president. When she joined the company 17 years ago, soft shells were sold mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region.

"Now we sell all over the [United States], and we export to some countries. The demand is great," says Ms. Haltaman, especially in places like Japan, England, and California.

"If anything limits our growth in soft crabs, it is going to be supply," Haltaman says, "It won't be from a lack of promoting or the lack of customers."

Back aboard the "Dawn Michele," hours drag as Tyler falls into a rhythm of crabbing.

The rain has improved to a dank mist, but the wind is still bone-chilling cold. While the net is out, Tyler takes refuge in the small cabin, which is warmed by a kerosene heater.

"It's hard to stay out here when it's slow and the weather's bad. You want to turn around and go back to bed," he says, only half joking.

He takes a bite of a McDonald's Big Mac, which he has warmed on the boat's engine.

Keeping the 'drive'

Crabbing can be a lonely pursuit, he admits, even with the constant crackle of the shortwave radio where dozens of watermen discuss the weather, tell stories, and share jokes.

"You need the 'drive.' That's what we call it," Tyler explains of a waterman's ability to endure the early mornings and long hours out on the water in all kinds of weather.

"Plenty of times, it gets really cold. It's dirty work; you get covered with grass and all kinds of stuff. It takes 20 minutes just to clean down the boat."

But given an alternative, Tyler wouldn't have it any other way. His father, who is 74, still crabs every day. And Tyler hopes to pass on the tradition to his grandson one day.

"When you're catching a lot of crabs, it goes by very quickly. I come out here every day and work hard, really hard. I like it out on the water. It's a good feeling, I tell you."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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