At the turn of the 20th century, fortunes were made and lost on Chesapeake Bay oysters. But those days were long ago. Todays oyster and crab fisheries are faced with disease and decline. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermens Association, recently discussed the economics of a life on the water.
The crabbing season began in April. How has it gone so far?
It started off good because they had a lot of big crabs, an abundance in early spring, but thats due to the warm winter. Its slowed down now because this is the time of year that it always does. The crabs are shedding -- losing their shells -- and growing. Its usually the slackest time of year.
How does this enterprise work as a business for the individual waterman? I imagine they have to buy a boat. That must be their biggest investment.
I guess so. Its hard to put a number on it because weve got people that fish and crab out of small bateaus that theyve probably got $10,000 in, and weve got people that fish out of boats that are worth a couple hundred thousand dollars. It depends on the rig, where theyre fishing, how far they have to travel, how big a crew theyve got, how much ambition theyve got, a whole gamut of things. Theres no magic number that you can put on it.
Are there any waterman that get rich doing it?
Watermen dont work on the water to get rich. They all have to have enough money to live off of and to keep operating, but they do it because of the way of life. Its in the area that they grew up in. Sometimes its the only job available to them. The other thing is, it was always the most prestigious job to have in these communities, to be a boat captain. Its just a way of life. If it was the money, theyd be doing something else.
What does a typical waterman make in a year?
Again, it varies according to where you are, what youre fishing and what kind of rig youve got. It varies from a $10,000- or $15,000-a-year job to maybe a $40,000- or $50,000-a-year job.
Somebody with a big boat that has a crew of three or four and fishes his limit of crab pots -- in the course of a season, he might sell $100,000 to $200,000 worth of crabs. You might say that hes really making a lot of money. Well, most of that money goes right back into the economy. First, hes got to buy his crab pots. Second, hes got a huge bait bill he has to pay. He has a big fuel bill. He has employees he has to pay, so hes keeping two or three families going. The money he ends up with at the end of the year is probably around $20,000. Its a big economy that starts with that crab.
Do you have an idea of how big a business it is in the state?
I dont have that number at my fingers here. Its very big. Oysters alone are like $10 million [a year], and thats way down. If you are looking at crabs, you are talking about a tremendous amount of money -- not just the crabber but the shore-side facilities, the picking houses, everything that goes with that. Its a tremendous amount of money that goes into the economy of the state of Maryland.
Incomes are down, arent they? Last year was a bad one for both crabs and oysters, according to the states figures.
Were used to lows and highs. We gear ourselves towards that. The problem is, for us, when government steps in and puts regulations on [catches] so that when the species returns to its normal high, were still held where it would be at a low.
An example is the striped bass. Weve got a tremendous abundance of striped bass but commercially were not allowed to harvest them any better than we were if we had the worst low that weve ever had.
Every waterman is geared to do everything. Hes a crabber, hes an eeler, hes an oysterman, hes a fisherman. Were geared to harvest according to the abundance of the species, so, weve all got a lot of gear that we dont use all the time. What happens when you have restrictions put on fisheries and you dont relax those restrictions when an abundance comes back, then its a false shortage of stock. We cant overcome that.
Lets say we have a shortage of oysters. Ordinarily when you have a shortage of oysters, you have an abundance of fish, so the oysterman would all go fishing. Now we have a shortage of oysters, we have a bunch of fish but with the regulations were operating like we have a shortage of fish.
But they lifted the fishing moratorium for striped bass a few years ago.
They lifted the moratorium, but they kept it at such a reduced rate that were operating like we have a shortage of fish. Thats whats killing us. Were used to the species going up and down. Its when government steps in and puts undue regulations on us [that we get hurt.]
Its not to say that we dont need regulations. We need regulations on everything. But you need the regulations to reflect the abundance or lack of abundance of a species. Bureaucrats dont like to take regulations off once theyve put them on.
There was quite a bit of controversy last year when the governor enacted a new set of crabbing regulations. What were some of the things that were changed?
The problem with the crab regulations [is] its hard to get one regulation that will fit everybody.
The bay is long. The watermen in different areas are geared to different methods of fishing. To find one regulation to fit all without hurting one group more than others is hard to do. Last year we went along with [the limit to] an eight-hour day because that hit everybody. But then the lower-bay crabbers got an injunction against that law. The governments way to catch up when that injunction came off was to impose more regulations. That was to shorten the season. That put undue hardship on the crabbers in the middle section of the bay because that was their main time of harvest. They paid the price more than anybody else.
Have these new restrictions forced anyone out of business? Have you heard of anyone who cant keep up?
There are a lot of people who are trying to get other jobs to supplement their income. The problem really is, you cant get a job and make enough money to pay your bills on your boat, insurance and all that. Its not the easiest thing to go get a job, especially on the Eastern Shore where the high paying jobs might be $10 an hour. And you cant sell your boat and equipment because nobody wants to buy it when you have a down time. Youre stuck in an industry you cant really get out of.
When the state enacted tighter crabbing regulations it cited some recent studies that reported historically low crab populations in the bay. The NOAA study said they were at a 30-year low. Do you dispute those numbers?
Theyre probably off, but I have to say the trend is down. Regardless of the total number, the [crab population] trend is going down. We dont dispute that. We dispute the reason why its going down.
The reason its going down is the environment. We dont have any submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) anymore. All the developments, farms, sewage treatment plants, theyre all putting stuff in the water that kills SAVs. Without that, the crabs dont have anywhere to hide. So, by the time it gets big enough for us to catch, its already decimated. Were the last ones in that food chain and by that time every predator in the world has had a shot at it.
If they dont do something about what man is doing to the bay, they could eliminate us all together and it won't make any difference because you wont have any resource. You cant keep polluting the bay and expect to have a resource out there.
How long have you been working on the water?
Im 64 years old, and I started with my great grandfather when I was about six or seven.
Is a career as a waterman something that you see young people still aspiring toward today or is it just not viable anymore?
We still have a waiting list of people that want to get a license. You still have the people who want to be watermen. When you grow up in a watering community theres a certain percentage of the boys and some women who want to be watermen. Theres a certain type of people that the watering way of life appeals to them. If they work hard, I think they can still make a living. Its a struggle, but it was a struggle when I was a young man. I dont see that changing.