By Jessica Hathaway
You just can’t delve into the subjects of fishing and boatbuilding on Chesapeake Bay without leaning pretty heavily on the region’s centuries of history — not even if your topic is the youngest generation of watermen who are taking up the historic art of crabbing.
Our cover story on young crabbers out of Annapolis, Md., comes from freelance writer and photographer Jay Fleming, who has spent the last two years documenting all aspects of the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry. Jay is working on illustrating the full spectrum of the industry in his upcoming first book “Working the Water” and hopes that his documentation of the bay will help bolster appreciation for the local seafood industry.
In this feature, starting on page 22, Jay profiles a crew of young watermen who have committed themselves to the fishing life with all the unknowns it has always brought — weather, water, timing, prices — and add to that the complex web of uncertainty that is fishing in the modern era. Young crabbers are also coping with a new marketplace, some finding success by clocking in as seafood wholesalers once their workday on the water is over.
Much like the farmed salmon crisis that once brought Alaska fishermen to their knees with low prices, the influx of foreign crab increased the demand for crab products and menu items in bay region restaurants and stores but dropped the ex-vessel price for local product. While Chesapeake fishermen cope with this new (for them) market challenge, some Alaska commercial fishermen are confronting the next big crisis of the global seafood industry, according to salmon drift gillnetter and NF Highliner Bill Webber Jr. Read his Dock Talk piece on the need for representatives of commercial fisheries, fishery management and fishery science to take a lead role in reversing the trend of ocean acidification on page 10.
Circling back around to the bay is Larry Chowning’s profile (on page 26) of Willard Norris, an 88-year-old boatbuilder in Deltaville, Va., who is enjoying the resurgence of wooden boatbuilding. Like many small-time and old-school boatbuilders, Norris started his business at home — literally in the space that would become his living room. Not long ago, one might have laughed at the likelihood of a wooden boatbuilding resurgence made even more unlikely with a spike in oyster fishing. But you don’t get to see nine decades without witnessing a few miracles. Norris already beat the odds with a remarkable recovery from pancreatic cancer 30 years ago, so a flourishing Chesapeake oyster fishery that’s creating demand for wooden boats probably feels about right for an old-timer who’s seen it all.