Making a living on the Chesapeake is getting tougher A waterman's life has gotten too hard for too many


The sum of this story in two words -- state job.

A man named Will is reared on remote Smith Island. Like his dad, the young man becomes a waterman. What you are weaned on as a boy, you do for a living as a man. In this morsel of Maryland, career options are under the limit.

Now, after 14 years of oystering and crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay, Will talks about filling out state job applications and friends who crabbed this summer but are now off the water and into state jobs. Work seven days, get four off with your land job. Sounds good to Will. Even his dad advises him to find another job.

Will Marshall, 31, is getting married in December, and picking out wedding invitations has a way of making a man check his Future File. Will sees his family enjoying steady pay and health benefits with a state job. But he also sees no longer being his own boss and being stuck inside on summer days when he'd normally be on his 35-foot fiberglass Whippoorwill II.

"I wouldn't miss being out on the water in the wintertime. I don't miss being half-froze all day and barely making a living," Will says.

Maryland's oyster season opened this month with the fanfare of a funeral. With many bay oysters exterminated by the parasites Dermo and MSX, a harvest that reached 1.5 million bushels in 1982 dropped to 120,000 last season. It was a record low that's expected to reach a new low this year. It's no mystery why the waterman's way of life is disappearing.

The Chesapeake has been called the "Bay of the Mother God." In other words, a holy institution.

The 64,000-square-mile bay has been analyzed and sampled more than the Bible, it's been said. But a person still has to make a living, and romanticism is the first casualty in the war of labor. No point in being stubborn or nostalgic about the life of a waterman, Will says.

"I think watermen will always be here, but if you want to try to make something out of yourself and have something out of life, this just ain't making it here," he says.

Will doesn't need the newspaper or TV to tell him oysters are dying and the bushel prices are six bucks cheaper than they were last year, and the local seafood packers are buying shellfish cheaper from Texas and Louisiana. He knows this.

He sees his books. He made maybe $25,000 last year (way before expenses and taxes) and probably will make less this year.

So, Will tries to picture himself at a desk job, wearing a tie.

"It wouldn't be very comfortable, but I'm willing to try it," he says aboard his boat docked near Tolchester. "Maybe I could be a correctional officer down in Somerset County. They say there's nothing to it."

There's a whiff of resignation in his voice but not defeat. Sure, he'd miss the bay's good summer crabbing, but there's no future in winter oystering. "If you don't mind working 24 hours a day almost, you might make it. But that ain't no life, either," Will says. He represents the younger generation of watermen. And the young guys call the older watermen drivers because "they go after it harder. They say we don't have as much drive," Will explains.

But many of the older watermen are strictly crabbing and finding other ways to make money. Chartering, for example. Skipjack captains (what's left of them) take school kids and party groups out on the bay. But you need a captain's license. Will hasn't gone through the paperwork, study and wait necessary to get one.

On Monday afternoon, Will has just finished a catnap after a half-day oystering in the fresher waters of the upper bay. The morning sun has left his round face pink and then white up top where his cap blocked the sun. The broad-shouldered man appears to be an extension of his boat, as if they were built together in some shipyard.

Bay boats are functional, blue-collar, a bit slow and insured up to the gills. Historic superstitions remain and Will abides by them. No blue paint or walnuts on a waterman's boat. Who knows why. Will also does not allow fried chicken on the Whippoorwill 11.

"Seems like every time you have fried chicken on the boat

something breaks down," he says. Instead, he's

always going with deli meat. If Will gets a land job, he hopes to hang onto his boat. He'll never completely leave the water. He is, after all, from Smith Island.

This winter, Will plans to work six days a week: five oystering, one crabbing and Sunday off. He's a patent tonger. Meaning, instead of using hand tongs to claw oysters up from the bay's bottom, Will uses mechanized pulleys to lower and raise hydraulic tongs. (He'll exhibit his patent tongs at Chesapeake Appreciation Days this weekend.)

He hired a young diver to prowl the bottom in the 60-degree water and find the "seed" oysters planted by the state. Diving for oysters can be faster and more efficient than tonging. Diving is also easier on the oysters, says Will, who splits the day's take with his diver. These aren't scuba divers; these guys are tethered to long air hoses.

"I guess it's a dangerous job -- for the diver," Will says.

As for his other crew, Will's fiancee, Becky Hill, gets $50 a day culling the oysters to make sure they aren't below the legal 3-inch limit. Other cullers are getting $40 a day, so somebody might be looking for her job, he jokes.

Will had a good day Monday, but he says the good days won't last. It's been predicted that all marketable shellfish will be taken in the first six weeks of the 5 1/2 -month season. Will's catch was 30 bushels of oysters, which were unloaded on the buy-boat Bear. Will got $14 a bushel -- cash. It's rugged but not complicated commerce.

Picking up his oyster baskets at Rock Hall's dock, Will watches the Bear's conveyor belt dump his muddy, tinny-smelling oysters into two pyramids in the Bevans Oyster Co. truck bound for Kinsale, Va. The driver, Thomas Coates, spent 41 years as a waterman but gave it up for truck driving. Will understands why.

"It's all I can do to keep my bills paid. Then save a little something -- that's impossible," he says.

Watermen inevitably get asked the question of how to mend the crippled bay. Will says he does his small part by not throwing his trash overboard anymore. In the big picture, it seems to him that every waterman can't be doing the same work all the time. Puts a powerful strain on things, he says.

So, maybe Will can land a state job and be a prison guard.

0$ There's nothing to it, he hears.

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