What’s new with blues?
Pulling pots with the next generation of Chesapeake Bay watermen
By Jay Fleming
In recent years the increased value in real estate around Annapolis, Md., has greatly diminished the city’s working waterfronts and replaced workboats with pleasure yachts. A small wharf home to a few workboats nestled in between million-dollar properties is one of a few working waterfronts left in town.
As I walk down the dock past piles of pots and bushel baskets to meet crabbers Nick Crook, 27, and Ben Byers, 24, I feel as if I have gone back to the Annapolis of 30 years ago. I was born a generation too late to see my hometown in its heyday as the Camelot of the Bay, with workboats tied up in Ego Alley and the 18 seafood-packing houses that lined the shores. Crook and Byers are among a group of young watermen working out of the state capital who are determined to keep their way of life afloat and continue the traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation. Both of them grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, one of the last strongholds in the state for watermen. Many kids who grew up in the communities where Crook and Byers are from, Kent Island and Bozman, didn’t know anything but working the water. The watermen of my generation have knowingly chosen a career path with an uncertain future.
A multitude of factors has contributed to the fact that the average age of a Maryland waterman is nearly 60, including the increased cost of operating, stricter regulations, fewer workable areas, diminished fish stocks and a younger generation that is seeking a career path with a predictable future — not one that swings so freely at the whims of government regulation and the forces of nature. Not withstanding these changes that have shaped the seafood industry of my generation, there is still hope for the future, thanks to a strong demand for the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay.
And it will take a sustained demand to keep fishermen working here. Before even leaving the dock, Crook says, “It costs $500 to $600 to turn the key on the boat every morning we work.”
This figure reflects the already high and increasing cost of doing business. Razor clams, the choice bait for a crabber in the Upper Bay, were high this year at $45 a bushel. Menhaden were $18 for a 50-pound box, and shrimp heads were $27. A crab pot ready to throw in the water costs roughly $40, which for Crook means that he has nearly $40,000 sitting in the water at any given time. “In order to catch enough to make a living, we need to fish 900 pots,” he says. After fishing the first line of 30 pots, we have a basket full of beautiful No. 1’s in the boat. The larger male crabs packed full of meat ring up at $160 a bushel.
Crook knows you need to do more than catch a lot of crabs to make ends meet. You have to be smart and willing to put in the extra effort to market your product. For years Crook and his father, Billy, have been seeking out markets in order to get a premium price.
“It’s a lot of legwork establishing the relationships,” Crook says. “And delivering the product is costly.”
Many watermen are comfortable with the routine of dropping their catch off at the dock, which…