Week 21. Watermen of Virginia's Eastern Shore
Tangier Island and Chincoteague Island lie only by 30 miles away as the osprey files, but a migratory rockfish swimming between the two would have to cover over 120 miles. Coming down the coast, she might cruise into Chincoteague Sound to feed over some oyster or shellfish beds, before rounding Cape Charles and busting up some schools of bunker at the mouth of the Bay. By the time she got to Tangier, the water would have half as salty and the main course might be peeler crabs. Assuming she got through the gauntlet of recreational anglers and commercial watermen, she would have seen a pretty good tour of Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Another way to get the tour would be to spend a few minutes talking to Dr. Paul Ewell. He heads of the Watermen's Heritage Foundation of Virginia's Eastern Shore, a 501(c)3 non-profit, and its advocacy arm, Watermen of Virginia Engaged (WAVE).
Chincoteague Salts are famous on oyster menus across the world, and as William Warner wrote in his 1976 classic Beautiful Swimmers, it's "quite accurate to say that Tangiermen catch more crabs than anyone under the sun." Paul's group is representing those heritages but also hoping to put the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the map the same way Maryland's seafood industry or the Northern Neck have marketed themselves.
I caught up with Paul on a March afternoon. Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What’s the story behind the Watermen’s Heritage Foundation of Virginia’s Eastern Shore?
I grew up in a family that has always been watermen; for four generations we were watermen. I’m also a professor and have always been split by the two. I’ve always been fascinated by the industry and in researching the past of the industry on the shore.
What I’ve realized doing it, is that Maryland does a great job of promoting and celebrating their fishing heritage. They just do — I mean, everyone knows the “Maryland blue crab” even though we have just as many in Virginia. My grandma used to joke that she was making Smith Island cakes before Smith Island was settled! The Western Shore does a great job too, from Reedville up and down.
So we set up our organization about 10 years ago with the goal of promoting and celebrating the maritime and commercial fishing heritage of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The Eastern Shore was built on farming and fishing, and what we’re doing is preserving the stories and photos and records of that heritage. We’ve documented every single derelict old boat we could find to tell the story of the shipbuilding and watermen heritage.
Can you give me a quick geography lesson of the maritime industry of the Eastern Shore of Virginia?
You can think about it as bayside vs. seaside, with this invisible done the middle of the Shore. On seaside, there’s Chincoteague, Greenbackville, Oyster, Wachapreague, Willis Wharf — these are all big on the oyster aquaculture. On the bayside, Cape Charles has a pretty active population of fishermen and crabbers, and so does Harborton on Pungoteague Creek. Saxis still has a thriving fishing community and of course Tangier is a community of watermen.
Is the Eastern Shore of Virginia unique in some way to the Eastern Shore of Maryland or the western Shore?
One of the things we’re trying to do is get past the regionalism — there’s just so much regionalism and that’s what’s killed us in the past. Historically Tangier and the mainland Eastern Shore don’t get along, and the two counties on the mainland Eastern Shore don’t get a long. It’s been an ongoing battle since the Revolutionary War!
Why is that?
Chincoteague and Tangier were pro-loyalist and the mainland wasn’t. In the Civil War they were pro-North, and the mainland wasn’t. So there’s always been bad blood there. Even on the mainland, Accomack and Northampton have always squabbled over money.
There’s 13 small museums between Pocomoke and Cape Charles. No two towns can go together to do anything. It’s that regional! It’s even that way creek by creek — folks with the mentality of “you don’t live on our creek!” So we’ve started the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum in Onancoke.
We’ve also formed a new group to cut through the regionalism called WAVE: Watermen of Virginia Engaged. The purpose was to get different little pockets of watermen associations to work together on something. We used to joke that 10 watermen would show up for a meeting, and then the police would have to show up. Farmers can form a strong lobby. But this whole isolation approached hasn’t helped us. So we have the museum, which is a 501(c)3, and then WAVE.
What are the issues you’re concerned about and advocating on?
The biggest one is oyster ground sanctuaries. The state wants more of them, and watermen want more public access. This has been going on for 200 years! It’s the ongoing question of aquaculture vs. free range.
Menhaden fishing is always a big issue too. We don’t get involved in that directly but it of course will impact us secondarily.
Lastly, we also may raise awareness on foreign seafood. You’ll see crabmeat advertised as Chesapeake blue crab, but it’s actually grown in Vietnam.
What’s the future the commercial seafood and maritime industry on the Shore?
Aquaculture is what everyone in the area is doing these days, from Cherrystone up to Chincoteague. Everywhere you go, you see oyster cages and it’s definitely a growing business.
Crabbing is holding it’s own but you don’t see anyone crab scrapping anymore in Virginia— that’s my favorite thing to do in the world. They still do some crab scraping in Maryland but not in Virginia. That’s partly because you have to pot outside of the creek in Maryland, but in Virginia you can do it anywhere, and potting catches a lot more crabs than scrapping. Also, when we lost all of the eelgrass, we lost a lot of habitat for the crabs, and you can’t scrape for crabs without eelgrass.
What’s a year in the life look like for you and the Eastern Shore waterman?
Right about now [in early March], crabbers are starting to hard crab through crab pots, and that will go until April. In April when the water temperature starts to get to the right level, we’ll start potting for soft crabs. A lot of watermen will do a fair amount of gill netting too. When I was a kid we’d put gill nets out in the spring to catch bunker for the crab pots.
If there’s a doubler run it’ll usually be in May. Then the crabbers will have to decide to peeler pot or hard pot. My brother and I had two rigs, a peeler pot and a hard pot and we’d alternate. Crabbing will go until October. Then they’ll need to decide if they’re going to continue to crab, or if they’re going oyster dredge or tong.
In our household growing up, if it came up in pot or drudge and you didn’t sell it, you ate it! And if you didn’t shoot it or didn’t catch it, you didn’t eat!