TYLERTON -- Passions over crabbing and conservation have reached a head in this tiny, tight-knit watermen's community on Smith Island.
Someone set fire to a shed owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation here last week. The blaze destroyed an office and about $13,000 worth of equipment used mainly to take school groups on field trips around the island, 12 miles from the Somerset County mainland.
The fire comes as watermen here and elsewhere around the bay complain bitterly about crabbing restrictions imposed on them this fall.
Declared an arson Monday by the state fire marshal's office, the blaze has seared the ties between the Annapolis-based environmental group and the 80 or so residents of this smallest and most isolated of the three villages that make up Smith Island.
"Who's [angry] enough with the Bay Foundation to do this?" asked Somerset County Deputy Sheriff Dan Harrison, minutes after he arrived by boat Tuesday with two fire marshals to investigate the case.
"Every waterman on the bay," replied Denny Bradshaw, 46, a former waterman who works for the foundation's education center here.
State fire investigators say everyone is a suspect, including the foundation's three employees on the island. Islanders suggest that anyone could have set the blaze, including outsiders. "We felt like it, but I don't think anybody did," said Waverly Evans, 69, as he waited inside his waterfront shanty for a freshly steamed bushel of crabs to cool.
But as another waterman acknowledged, "The finger really points here."
Yellow "Caution" tape surrounds the burned-out shell of the white, corrugated steel building. Investigators posted small signs on the side bearing the word "Arson," offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
Emergency crabbing restrictions, intended to conserve female crabs, have infuriated watermen, who say the rules imposed by the state this fall threaten their livelihood. Many watermen blame the Bay Foundation, saying the group whipped up public support for curtailing crabbing.
Nowhere is the anger stronger than in Tylerton, where crabbing is almost the only source of income.
"The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's got their part in taking care of the bay," said Dwight Marshall, president of the Tangier
Sound Watermen's Association and an unofficial village leader. "But when you go messing in people's livelihood, you're rubbing people's hair the wrong way, and you're bound to get some flak back."
The fire the night of Oct. 9 is the latest and most serious act of vandalism at the foundation's education center here since crabbing restrictions were proposed.
Last month, Mr. Bradshaw said, he found a dead cormorant in an aquarium inside one of two houses owned by the group to provide lodging for middle and high school students. Then, about two weeks ago, someone doused the workboat used for group tours with used motor oil.
Foundation employees say they had heard watermen talking over marine radio about taking revenge for the crabbing restrictions. But they discounted the remarks as idle threats.
On the day of the fire, someone in Crisfield told a foundation educator, Christy White, 23, to "watch her backside."
An island nightmare
About 9:30 that night, shortly after Ms. White had left the shed office, fire broke out at the other end of the building.
Fire is rare here, but it is a special nightmare for this often-windswept island. It was calm that night, or "slick cam," as islanders say. But the blaze could easily have spread, because houses are close together. Tylerton's six-man volunteer fire company put out the fire without anyone being injured.
Lindsey Bradshaw, Tylerton's volunteer fire chief, suggests that the foundation's shed might have been burned by a firebug. There was a suspicious-looking fire in a closed summer house earlier this year, he recalled, which went unnoticed until its owners arrived in spring.
'For some it's revenge
But even so, Mr. Bradshaw acknowledged, the watermen's complaints about the environmental group might have encouraged the suspected firebug.
"I think some people here are sorry this happened," the fire chief said. "But for some people, it's revenge."
The fire prompted the foundation to cancel overnight field trips by school groups from Baltimore County and Richmond, Va. But foundation officials say they plan to resume the sessions by the end of the month. And they are hoping to patch up their differences with the islanders.
"This is really very disturbing and sad for us," said William C. Baker, the foundation's president. "It's especially painful for us, because we think we have been treated with such respect and friendship from the residents for so long."
The foundation has been bringing teachers and students to Tylerton to learn about the bay and about the watermen's life for 17 years. It is the oldest of the group's several education centers.
"I don't know why anyone can't like the foundation," said Priscilla Bradshaw, Denny's mother and a defender of the environmental group. "We can't do without them."
The foundation has helped sustain the village's fishing-oriented economy, providing business for the ferry and the community store. It also has lent support to the local fire company and to islanders trying to start a crab-picking cooperative.
But islanders feel threatened, said Janice Marshall, Dwight's sister-in-law. The community is dwindling in size, as older residents die and younger ones move away. The county is trying to close the village's elementary school because of its tiny enrollment, forcing remaining youngsters to commute by boat to Crisfield.
"There's no other industry than what comes out of that water," noted Ms. Marshall, as she and two neighbors sat around a table in a large backyard shed picking crab meat for sale on the mainland. But setting a fire, she said, is "no way to settle things."
Denny Bradshaw, the foundation employee, said of his watermen neighbors, "They're scared to death right now. They don't know what's happening. There are so many regulations coming down, they're scared they're being driven off the bay."
He and some other foundation staff members say the group made a mistake in publicly proposing limits on crabbing without first talking them over with watermen on the island.
"Perhaps we didn't get enough [input] from those islands, and I would apologize for that," said William Goldsborough, the foundation's fisheries scientist and a particular target of watermen's bitterness. "We will rectify that," he vowed.
Mr. Marshall said the anger might heal if the foundation can persuade the state to lift the restrictions. Many watermen do not believe there is any crab shortage, he said, noting that there are "millions" of small juvenile crabs on the bottom.
But Mr. Baker, the bay foundation president, said: "If they're asking for an apology for our trying to protect the spawning stock of female blue crabs, I can't say we're wrong."
"In a way, maybe we were on a collision course and didn't know it," said Don Baugh, director of the foundation's bay education program. "Here we were helping and being part of [the island] and living closely, but ultimately we were going to suggest regulations.
"Because it was a betrayal of family of sorts," he said, "it was a stronger reaction."