For the better part of three centuries, the Chesapeake Bay's bounty sustained Anne Arundel County watermen and their families, spawning small fishing villages where generations of young men inherited a lifeon the water.
William R. "Jimmy" Cantler followed his father and seven brothers 34 years ago to a life on the bay, harvesting oysters,clams and crabs from clear waters off largely untouched shores near St. Margarets, just northeast of Annapolis.
On Tenthouse Creek, off the West River, Woodfield Fish and OysterCo. hired more than 100 workers each winter to shuck oysters in the cement block buildings the Woodfield brothers, Herman and William, built in 1917.
And just 20 years ago in Galesville, a tiny South County community with one main street leading to the water, some three dozen oystermen steered sturdy workboats out each morning to ply the waters of the Chesapeake.
To the watermen, more people just meant bigger markets for a seemingly endless supply of oysters, crabs and animpressive array of fish.
Today, the population boom means something else entirely to county watermen -- it threatens their very way of life. Just three decades ago, 3,000 men made their living as commercial fishermen along county shores. Today, the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association estimates, 300 remain.
More people mean more development, industry and farms sending pollutants into the waters, choking life from the potential catch. The relentless migration to thewaterfront, suddenly fashionable after 300 years, pushes prices beyond the reach of watermen and makes it hard to find even a place that allows workboats.
These days, in St. Margarets, Jimmy Cantler watches in dismay as the silt from nearby road construction muddies the water of Mill Creek, where he and his brothers and father once docked their fishing boats.
That's not the only sign that out-of-towners have discovered the once sparsely populated shores.
Cantler never dreamed that the Riverside Inn he bought so he could sell his seafoodand dock his boat would turn from a rough bar where pool-playing erupted into fistfights into a popular seafood restaurant that finally drew him off the water.
Watermen still unload their crabs at his pier, but county land-use restrictions forbid them to tie workboats there permanently.
At Woodfield, the last county plant where workers still shuck oysters and freeze and sell fish, the number of shuckers has dwindled to about 10 each winter. There are fewer oysters and fewer people who want to shuck them. Ice, not fish, takes up most of thespace in the room-size freezers. Ice sales account for 90 percent ofbusiness now at the plant run by Bill Woodfield, Herman Woodfield's grandson.
And in the predawn hours each day in Galesville, only one workboat heads out to greet the sunrise. As commercial fishing has become more regulated, the owner of that lone boat, 36-year-old Norman Scotten, now counts on the hearty blue crab that seems immune, for now, to the disease and pollutants that overwhelmed fish and oysters.
"It's gone. It's over with," says the Galesville native, the fifth and probably last generation of his family to work the water. "If it weren't for crabs, I wouldn't make it. That's for sure."
The sun shimmers on the water a few miles off Sandy Point. On the 46-foot Dawn II, Larry Simns hunches over and plucks clams from a conveyorbelt. The clams keep coming, turning Simns' hands raw, as the rig dredges off starboard side.
Beneath the water's calm surface, pollution, disease and toxic chemicals wage a battle against fish and plants in the shallow water. Simns' thoughts never wander far from the battle. He pauses to point out a place on shore, near one of the county's sewage treatment plants, where a pipeline spews effluent into the bay.
"We see what happens every day," laments the 53-year-old clammer, who comes from a long line of watermen on his mother's side. "That used to be one of the best productive oyster bars right there. It doesn't reproduce any more."
The plant's effluent is just a fraction of all the treated sewage dumped into streams and rivers that flow to the bay each day -- more than one billion gallons. In one year with average rainfall, nearly 150 million pounds of nitrogen and 14 million pounds of phosphorus pour in from municipal sewage treatment plants, industrial dischargers and agricultural runoff, according to the Maryland Sea Grant College at the University of Maryland.
In massive amounts, nutrients fertilize algae that rob plant and marine life of essential light and oxygen. Add to that tons of sediment, herbicides and fertilizers and several thousand varieties of chemical wastes that drain from a six-state area into the bay. And more people in that drainage area -- in Anne Arundel County and as far away as New York-- mean more of the same.
In Anne Arundel, developers hustle to keep up with demand. Since 1987, more than 400 new waterfront homes oradditions have been built each year.
In 1988 the county adopted stricter guidelines for building in so-called "critical areas" 1,000 feet from the bay and its tributaries. Still, the county has approved more than 2,800 new lots in those areas.
With a predicted crush of3 million more people in the bay's drainage area in the next 20 to 30 years, environmentalists suggest that without bold steps, however unpopular, future generations won't be able to enjoy the bay -- much less earn a living from it.
Last month, the influential Chesapeake Bay Foundation released the most comprehensive bay report in eight years. It said that years of effort and money have failed to nurse the nation's largest estuary -- supplier of half the nation's blue crabs,more than two-thirds of its soft clams and about 15 percent of its oysters -- back to health.
"We are not far from consigning a cominggeneration of children to seeing oyster skipjacks only in museums and books . . . to savoring the regional uniqueness attached to so manyparts of the Bay watershed only from books, from pictures, and from the reminiscences of their elders," said the report.
Since the Environmental Protection Agency spurred a regional campaign eight years ago to reduce pollutants from industry, farms and sewage plants, "There still is no discernible trend toward a system-wide comeback," the report, "Turning the Tide," said.
The failure to rebound has had as much to do with what waterman take from the bay as it does with what flows into it, foundation scientists say.
"It is amply clear that over-fishing, both sport and commercial, has been a major culprit in the bay's widespread fishery decline," according to "Turning the Tide."
Researchers point to some progress: Sewage and industrial plants have reduced some pollutants, including phosphorus; and populations of striped bass and shad, off limits to Maryland fishermen becauseof declining numbers, have rebounded. Underwater grasses that died off through the mid-1980s are slowly coming back.
But parasites MSXand dermo, overfishing from years ago and erosion of oyster beds threaten to make oysters commercially extinct, the bay foundation says. Harvests have plummeted to less than 1 percent of the bounty gatheredat the turn of the century, when hundreds of Chesapeake Bay skipjacks dredged more than 10 million bushels from reefs at the water's surface.
Through winters in the 1960s, watermen crowded into the Annapolis harbor to work oyster bars considered the bay's most productive.As late as 1974, the bay supplied half the national oyster harvest. The oyster fishery remained the state's most valuable until 1983, when crabbing surpassed it to become today a $75 million industry.
By1988, the annual oyster harvest fell to 350,000 bushels, the lowest in more than a century. This year's harvest yielded oysters of good quality but still hovered below the half-million mark, at 450,000 bushels. The old skipjack dredge boats, the most efficient of the oyster harvesters, have either sunk, rotted from age or become museums of a sort. Only 15 set sail on the bay last winter.
Besides the oyster decline, scientists note that other unhealthy trends continue. Some species of fish continue sharp declines, nitrogen has increased slightly, air pollution has proved a bigger threat than once thought and storm water and sediment controls have not compensated for vegetation lost with development.
"It would be one thing if the population wasstable, but it's not," said Jim Robertson, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We have to do that much more toreduce people's impact on the Chesapeake Bay. We don't think we can afford to wait."
After the foundation's highly publicized report, president William C. Baker charged that the press unfairly zeroed in on just one of dozens of recommendations -- to ban oyster harvesting for three years and hire watermen to help restore oyster bars. That proposal drew the quickest and hottest fire from opponents.
But without a ban, Baker said, "you're not going to have a three-year moratorium, you're going to have a permanent one if there are no oysters inthe bay. It is so short-sighted to worry about three years and risk the entire industry forever. All you have to do is look at the numbers, 1 percent left. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know something bold needs to be done."
But watermen counter that a ban wouldn't help the oysters. Instead, it would put oystermen out of work,allow Pacific Ocean bivalves to take over markets and unfairly punish a politically weak group that already abides by strict limits on daily catches and work hours.
"The first thing they always want to do is shut it down," said Cantler. "It's an easy thing to say."
"Fingers are pointed at watermen for over-harvesting and depleting the bay's resources when the real problems range from development runoff to inadequate sewage treatment plants," Simns said, noting that older watermen have seen oysters come and go. "Shutting down the watermen for three years is as impractical as shutting down the farmers, the sewage treatment plants and the industries that pollute the bay."
State officials, though, said they have ruled out closing a $25 millionoyster industry that produced a $10 million dockside value last winter.
"It still is a fairly valuable industry coming from a fairly small area of the bay," said W. Pete Jensen, director of fisheries at the state Department of Natural Resources. "We don't think the answeris a total moratorium."
The state already protects in sanctuariessome 200,000 acres of bay bottom because of low supply -- caused partly by parasitic disease -- out of a total 283,000 acres reserved to lease for oyster growing, Jensen said.
He said the state will continue trying to revive the industry by planting shells on which oysterlarvae attach, then moving those seed oysters to more productive areas. The state planted 400,000 bushels of seed this year, which watermen can harvest in two years, Jensen said.
In spite of the decline that forced many watermen to switch to crabbing or clamming or look landward for jobs, oystering still offers the only living for many watermen during the winter.
Last winter, Scotten hired a crew member to dive for oysters from his boat, the Virginia. He earned $34 a bushel until Christmas. But after that, the market fell off, and prices dropped to $20 a bushel. He quit oystering for the season.
He's convinced that someday the state will regulate crabbing to the point where it will no longer be worth his while.
If that day ever comes, "I guess I'll have to leave or start robbing banks," he says bitterly."You work all your life for nothing, then they want to take stuff away from you."
He vows he'd leave before that ever happens.
"I'mgoing to do this the rest of my life, here or someplace else," he says. "I'll never stop."
On a bright, breezy spring day on BearNeck Creek, off the Rhode River, pleasure boats zip by the Blue Water Marina. John Orme, owner of the only workboat there, watches from the gravel yard as he mends and paints wire pots that trap blue crabs.
Each spring, the stocky, curly-haired oysterman and crabber spends hour upon hour laboring over those pots. But some of his work will be in vain. Almost inevitably, some boat will knock into one of the metal cages, drag and crush it. Or someone will steal one. He'll lose a couple hundred like that.
"Everyone is entitled to the water," says the 34-year-old Orme, who tops his ruddy, brown-bearded face witha camouflage hat that says, "Save the Watermen." "I just wish they'dbe more careful about what they do."
Orme's family runs the marina his father built in 1961, back when "the community was tied to the water. If you didn't go out oystering, you worked in a shucking house."
In those days, "seaweed grew out to the middle of the channel,"Orme recalls. "You'd see white perch and bluegills; we used to call them sunfish. In the last part of the 1980s, it started to improve. There's more seaweed. But it'll never be nothin' like it was."
As president of the county watermen's association, Orme sees the migration of some watermen toward less populous shores. He is one of the few left who still can dock his boat outside his house.
"If you don't have a place to tie up your boat, you can't go to work," he says simply. "I know several people who moved to the Eastern Shore. They couldn't put up with the neighbors and zoning laws and high prices."
Hetells about the new neighbor who bought an old house near his on thewater, then gutted and remodeled it. Soon the complaints started.
"They claimed I was leaving the dock at 4:30 in the morning and making noise. I don't even get up then, unless I'm driving to go to work," Orme says.
Today, he fears what new development will do to places like the former Leatherbury Oyster House in Shady Side, where 18 watermen still dock at the piers.
The plant closed in the mid-1960s,but the owner's daughter, artist Jackie Leatherbury Douglass, and her husband, artist John Douglass, live on the acre property on ParrishCreek. They use a room in the old, two-story plant as a studio.
While newer waterfront dwellers have clashed with watermen, complaining about noisy diesel engines and dirty equipment, the Douglasses wouldn't have it any other way.
"My father said to take care of them as much as I could, and that's what I'm doing," Jackie Douglass says.
Though they plan it no time soon, someday the Douglasses will sellthe property. County watermen don't relish the prospect.
"The oldfamilies that lived there accepted the watermen," says Orme. Newcomers, he says, "are going to want a place to tie a boat up and will go to Parrish Creek and push the watermen out."
That, Simns says, could prove disastrous.
"We see stuff that happens and we report it. We see a sewage spills. We see oil spills. We see them and we report it," he says. "We're just one step in a chain. Take us out, the bay'sgoing to go downhill quick. Soon it won't be fit to run a boat through.
"As long as we're here, that's a good sign."