By: Megan Miller
Many of us choose to enjoy a bushel of steamed crabs with family and friends in the summer months. This beloved tradition is made possible through the efforts of our local watermen (and women!) who play a critical role in the history, culture and economy of the Chesapeake Bay. Watermen, clad in their iconic white boots, harvest crabs, oysters, clams, rockfish, bluefish, flounder and other seafood varieties throughout the year. Most are self-employed and own their own boats and sell their catch to local seafood houses that then sell directly to customers, restaurants or other retailers.
The term “waterman” dates back to the eleventh century in England and was reserved for smugglers who used small boats to transport stolen goods. When the English began settling the Chesapeake Bay, the moniker was then bestowed on the men and women who made a living by fishing, crabbing and oystering in the region.
While the Oyster Wars are long over, watermen are still working with state and local governments to protect fishing rights and the health of the Bay and its fisheries. Watermen are acutely aware of and impacted by the health of the Bay and its tributaries. They are advocates for sustainable crab, oyster, fish and other wildlife populations in order to preserve their work and way of life that has had such an impact on the past and present Eastern Shore.
To learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Watermen, consider a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (www.cbmm.org ) in St. Michaels, the Waterman’s Memorial Monument in Grasonville (https://www.visitmaryland.org/listing/attraction/watermens-memorial-monument) or the Waterman’s Museum in Tilghman Island (https://tilghmanmuseum.org/), Rock Hall Waterman's Museum (https://www.rockhallmd.com/watermans-museum)
Native Americans introduced early English settlers to oysters and crabs, and the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay quickly became part of the colonial diet and economy. The settlers adapted Native American techniques and began building their own versions of log canoes, oyster tongs and other tools of the trade. Skipjacks, Schooners and Deadrises - boats that symbolize the history of the Bay – were developed to support watermen and their work.
Following the Civil War, Chesapeake Bay oysters were an extremely valuable commodity on the Atlantic coast, so much so that multiple conflicts known as the “Oyster Wars” erupted as waterman and local governments fought for control of the oyster beds in the Bay and in its tributaries. Dredgers from New England, who had already depleted oyster beds in the North, traveled to the South and began dredging the Bay. These new techniques quickly wiped out oyster beds to the dismay of the “tongers,” or watermen who used smaller boats and the tonging technique. Despite regulations passed by Maryland and Virginia, dredgers attempted to violate the laws and tongers confronted these “oyster pirates” by shooting them from the shore. The conflict continued to escalate, and in 1868 both Maryland and Virginia established Oyster Navies to maintain order in the Bay. Maryland’s Oyster Navy was the precursor to today’s Natural Resources Police.
Sources: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum - St. Michaels, Md., The Mariner’s Museum - Newport News, Va.