“Our people are used to freedom. You go to work in the morning; you come back home when you want — you don’t have to punch a time clock. On the other hand, that requires a certain something about a person, because occasionally we see somebody who will need to work under a boss and who doesn’t have the whatever it takes to carry on his own business.” - Smith Island waterman
The Chesapeake Bay is this nation’s largest and most productive estuary and a major fishing ground for crabs, oysters, clams and popular species of fish like trout, bluefish and bass.
For 12 years, I lived for varying periods of time among the citizens of two of the Bay’s most isolated fishing communities: nine years with the Guinea people of Virginia and three years with the inhabitants of Smith Island, just across the Maryland state line, in the middle of the Bay. I saw first-hand, and often participated in, the ways in which people of these communities harvest the Bay — working at their own paces, with methods old and new, dealing with the changes which modern marketing pressures, new technology and increased government regulation are bringing to their lives.
The following vignettes are drawn from my experiences with these harvesters of the Bay. The photographs come from a variety of sources and localities along the shores of the Bay, including — but not exclusively — Guinea and Smith Island.
Almost all the Guinea and Smith Island, men fish for crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter. The Guineans catch mostly hard-shelled crabs, while the Smith Islanders scrape for “softies” — crabs which have shed their shells and whose soft, whole bodies are considered more of a delicacy. The crabber’s art lies in recognizing the precise stages of a crab’s shell development, as each phase signifies a change in the way the crab must be handled and marketed.
One day last fall I went scraping for softies with a Smith Island crabber named David. I had spent the night with his family, and David’s mother called me at 4:00 that morning. “Are you sure you want to go out there?” she asked me. “It’s going to be a long day.” When I said yes, she sighed and said, “Well, you have more nerve than I do. I never have gone.”
The sun was just starting to come up as we headed out on David’s boat. The air was chilly and the sky was full of color. David didn’t talk much; he said he enjoyed the quiet of the morning. He steered standing up, pressing his leg against the tiller. It took about half an hour to reach the shallow, marshy area where David planned to scrape. “When crabs shed, they look for the cover of the marsh grass in shallow water for protection,” he explained. He noted that we were illegally over the state line, but pointed out about a dozen other Smith Island boats fishing the same area.
David threw the two crab scrapes into the water, then put the engine in low gear and dragged forward slowly for about 15 minutes. When he pulled the first scrape up over his head, it looked heavy. He emptied it into an enclosed, boarded-up section of the boat — and I soon saw why the enclosure was needed: out of bundles of eel grass scurried dozens of crabs, eager to escape. Deftly, David picked them out from the grass, jellyfish and other sea creatures.
As he worked, he explained, “Crabs grow by shedding their shells. You can tell when a crab will shed by the color of the skin on the swimming leg [the back fin].” He threw most of the crabs back in the water — “too small to mess with.” After breaking the claws of the remaining crabs (“so they won’t hurt each other”), he sorted them into buckets according to when they would shed: hard crabs that wouldn’t shed for some time; green crabs which would shed in a few days to several weeks; red crabs which would shed within a day or two; “rank” crabs which were starting to shed; soft crabs which had just shed; and “buckrams” which had shed and were just forming a paper-thin shell. He explained that buckrams cannot be sold as soft crabs and that it is illegal to keep them. “Most everyone keeps some for eating, though,” he added. Most crabs which hadn’t peeled would be stored live in submerged crab floats back at his family’s crab shanty and checked every day until they reached the marketable soft stage.
We worked until about noon. David was disappointed with his catch. “Got 800 yesterday and about that many the day before,” he said. “Today we only have 150 soft and 50 hard. Probably cause of the wind; a nor’east or a sou’east is a bad wind.”
Around 12:30, David called a buddy on his CB radio: “Let’s go in early and drink beer.” We started slowly in; David scrubbed down the boat on the way. I noticed most of the other boats were coming in too.
We stopped to gas up the boat at the shanty, store the new crabs in the floats and “fish-up” — remove those soft crabs ready for market. We got home about 4:30, suppertime on Smith Island.
Guinea women generally work in local fish houses, cleaning and dressing fish, shucking oysters or clams, or packing crabs. Most of the fish houses are small, hiring from four to 15 workers, most of them part-time. Women workers say they like the day-to-day cash, and the fact that the boss doesn’t take out taxes. They can make $25 to $50 in a morning cleaning fish; shucking clams and oysters brings around $6 an hour. But the work is often sporadic, and may not be available when the women need it the most.
Bob’s fish house is fairly typical. It contains two small, cement-floored rooms. Each has a heater, but the place was definitely chilly the morning of my visit.
Mary Jane was standing on a small, wooden stool, cleaning fish on a long waist-high table. “This stool keeps my feet off the cold floor and out of the wet,” she explained. “The pan of hot water warms my hands. These fish is trout. He pays me $3 a box to fillet and $2 to dress them [cut off heads and clean out guts]. Takes me about 10 minutes to dress a box.”
“How long will it take you to clean all these fish?” I asked.
“Lands a’mercy, child. Near a lifetime, I reckon. Exceptin that my sisters is a’comin from the other fish house to hup me when they finish up there.”
“Could I help clean?” I asked.
“Sure,” said the boss, who was working along with everyone else. So was his wife.
“I thought the boss didn’t have to work,” I joked, making conversation.
“It don’t work that way around here,” he replied seriously.
The water was five inches deep in the filleting room of Cecil’s fish house, the largest in the area. Five women stood at a long table cleaning fish, which had first been through a scaling machine. Swish, swish! Two cuts of a knife and a fish is filleted. Almost no meat is wasted.
Meanwhile the women were singing country music songs and bantering about who is “the fastest fish cleaner that has ever been,” or who has the biggest fish to clean, or how much money they have made so far. “Made $50 already,” one woman said early in the morning. Later I found out that she made only $48 for the whole day.
On a cold late-winter morning, Donnie picked me up in his boat to go oystering. We stopped for gas at the Smith Island pump a little after 7:00. “Can go all day on 17 or 18 gallons of diesel,” said Donnie. His boat is a 40-footer, with a cabin that has a stove and a bunk bed.
We headed east for about 45 minutes before Donnie put on his oil skins and lowered a chain hooked to a fine and buoy into the water. He pulled the chain along the bottom until he felt a bump, which told him there were oysters below. He threw down the anchor, leaving the buoy in place to mark the start of his circular tonging rotation.
Donnie dredged with hydraulic tongs — five-foot-wide opposable steel baskets with jaws which scoop up mud and oysters from the bottom. (This method has become controversial since it tears up the bottom, disturbing the beds and making it more difficult for new oysters to form.) He lowered the tongs with a foot pedal. Another pedal opened and closed the jaws on the bottom. Then he began raising the tongs — as slowly as possible — but still the heavy tongs came swinging over the boat so that he had to reach out and pull them in.
“Watch out,” he yelled as he opened the jaws; oysters, mud and loose shells poured onto a culling board in the middle of the boat. Cold water and mud sprayed us thoroughly. “It is a boring job and a hard way to make a living,” said Donnie as he separated out the whole oysters, which he then threw onto the floor of the boat, pushing the debris back overboard.
The whole process started over again. When the tongs brought up nothing but mud, Donnie moved to another spot in his circle. In two hours he had four bushels, or $32 worth. “In a good season I sometimes get my limit, 25 bushels, by 9:30 a.m.,” he commented. “That’s all a licensed oysterman is allowed, but many get more than that. I got 37 bushels once.” The legal size for oysters is three inches, but Donnie kept them all, saying, “Inspectors are hardly ever at the dock of the oyster house. You take the chance.”
We worked that location until the middle of the afternoon. I helped some but soon retreated to the warm cabin for a nap. It was a cold, strenuous and dirty job. Donnie relieved his boredom by talking occasionally on his CB radio with other oysterers, joking around and comparing his luck with theirs.
Around 3:00 we moved to a second location, but few oysters came up so Donnie decided to quit. We chugged over to the mainland to sell the oysters. Several boats were already in line in front of the oyster house so we went to a local bar for a drink with some of the men who had already unloaded their catches. After a while we went back, and Donnie shoveled his oysters into buckets and attached them to a winch which was pulled up by an oyster-house employee; the oysters then moved into the house on a conveyor belt.
I was heading out from Guinea towards the mainland one morning in Michael Paul’s little skiff, when I noticed about nine men, women and children standing in the water together. Some of the women had on dresses and carried baskets tied to their waists. “What are they doing?” I asked Michael Paul.
“They’re rakin clams,” he said, calling me “foolish” (a term of endearment) for not knowing.
“Tell me how,” I asked.
“Well, you get in the water as fur up as your waist. Tie a basket round you in the middle. Then you take a clam rake and dig for the clams. If you are really good, you can flip them up with the rake or your toes, but some has to bend over to get them. Can make a lot of money that way.”
I watched the Guinea oystermen coming closer to the shore as they were finishing for the day. On each side of the boat, a man was holding two long poles that crossed like scissors. Each man pushed the top ends of the poles together, causing the lower baskets to close around the oysters. Hand-tonging is strenuous work. Sometimes there were as many as 30 oysters in the tongs, sometimes only mud, shell and rock. A young boy culled the oysters from the loose shell.
The men had stayed out about five hours; in the summer they will use the same boats for crabbing. They say they like the change in seasons: “Eases the boredom of doing the same thing.”
George Lee came back with quite a pile of oysters. “Probably 30 bushels there,” he said. “At $6 a bushel, I’ll make out okay today.”
A man in a truck pulled up to pick up the oysters. “He owns the clam house down the way,” George Lee said. “Always buys my oysters.”
I noticed George Lee had put aside several smaller baskets of oysters. He saw me looking and said, “One is for you to take home.”
Carolyn Ellis received her Ph.D. in 1981 from SUNY at Stony Brook. Her dissertation “Community, Crabs and Capitalism” concerned life, work and change in isolated fishing communities. She is now an assistant professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. (1982)