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Smith Island, threatened by rising water and dwindling population, aims to shore up its future

Determined to maintain a traditional fishing community that's nearly 400 years old, Smith Islanders come together behind a "vision plan" that spells out ideas for fending off rising Chesapeake Bay waters and the erosion of their population and way of life.

The beep-beep and rumble of heavy equipment drowns out the wind's whisper, as construction crews race to finish shielding the vast marsh here from the relentlessly encroaching waves of the Chesapeake Bay.

Rocks, boulders and sand are being spread along nearly four miles of eroding shoreline to protect the Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge on the north end of Smith Island. Its 4,500 acres are home to a rich array of migratory birds, including overwintering tundra swans and Maryland's only nesting colony of black skimmers.

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"It's the closest thing you can come to wilderness in the Mid-Atlantic area," said Matt Whitbeck, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as he monitored the work last week from a boat offshore.

But the $8.5 million project also offers some help — and no small amount of hope — to the hardy but endangered human community on the southern side of the state's only inhabited island, 12 miles by water from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore. It will help shield a portion of Ewell, the largest of three small villages here, from wind-driven waves. And it should safeguard a grassy cove that in warm weather is crawling with blue crabs — the lifeblood of the island's economy.

The refuge's "living shoreline" is a tangible sign to islanders that the government has not given up on Smith Island, two years after residents fended off a $2 million offer by the state to buy up and demolish homes here in the wake of devastation wrought along the Mid-Atlantic coast by Superstorm Sandy. Independent-minded islanders banded together then and have since drawn up a "vision plan" spelling out what they believe is needed to sustain their nearly 400-year-old community in the face of its eroding land and population.

"We want to make sure the island is here for as long as it can be," said the Rev. Rick Edmund, a United Methodist pastor who for the past 15 years has ministered to and lived among the islanders.

How long that will be is anyone's guess. Storm surges and rising bay waters — both exacerbated by climate change, scientists say — pose serious threats to an island that's fewer than five feet above sea level.

A couple weeks ago, as Hurricane Joaquin blew by far off the Atlantic coast, parts of Ewell flooded, and water got in the entrance of the Methodist church. Edmund laid it to a freak high tide brought on by several days of constant hard winds.

Many islanders, in fact, insist their natural nemesis is erosion, not rising sea level. But their more imminent worry is that a dwindling population will make the island untenable long before flooding does.

The 2010 Census counted 276 people on Smith Island, many of them descendants of families that have been here for generations. But the full-time population is down 24 percent from what it was a decade before, and many homes sit empty. There are so few children among the aging residents — median age 58 — that the island's tiny school encompassing kindergarten through 7th grade has just 9 students. High-school aged children must take a boat each day to Crisfield.

"We need new residents to take over for those who are no longer here," said Edmund, 67, whose ministry includes preaching almost every Sunday in each of the three island communities — with a boat ride needed to get from Ewell and Rhodes Point to Tylerton, which is an island within the island.

The chief livelihood, as it's been for centuries, is crabbing, fishing and oystering. Warmer months bring tourists, outdoors enthusiasts and "part-timers" who temporarily swell the population to partake of the island's quiet, its natural bounty and its small-town culture — including a slice of the traditional eight-layer cake that is Maryland's official dessert.

Islanders, expatriates and part-time residents who came together in response to the buyout bid spent nine months meeting and cataloging what they saw as the strengths, challenges and opportunities for reinvigorating the community. Their "vision plan" lays out nearly two dozen ideas for restoring or maintaining the island's economy, its infrastructure and its culture.

"This is something we've not been used to doing," said Eddie Somers, president of Smith Island United. "We've been used to doing it on our own, but we realize these projects are bigger than we can do by ourselves."

Among the challenges to bringing more people in, either as residents or tourists, are the limited and unpredictable passenger boat service to and from the island and Internet service that's also unreliable and slow. The few places to eat and buy groceries shrank this spring, when the owner's failing health closed Ruke's Seafood Deck, a longtime fixture in Ewell.

Islanders hope to get a dock and a shoreline protection project for exposed Rhodes Point, the only part of the island with any significant damage from Sandy. And they're looking for construction of a new sewage treatment plant, to replace aging, poorly performing facilities that were blamed for closing waters south of the island to shellfishing earlier this year.

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County officials say they're working with state and federal counterparts on those projects, which together could cost $14 million or possibly more.

"Our No. 1 goal is to keep Smith Island watermen's community as it's always been," said Mark Kitching, a lifelong islander and president of the Tangier Sound Watermen's Association. Watermen are still the linchpin of the economy, and a big part of the draw for tourists.

The ranks of working watermen also has shrunk to around 45, Kitching said, and those still going out are getting older, with younger people opting to move to the mainland instead. Barring some kind of turnaround, he said, "the last Smith Island waterman may already be doing the work."

Islanders want to try launching an apprentice program, to lure newcomers to work with and learn from the remaining watermen.

Kitching acknowledges that attracting outsiders to a place as different and isolated as Smith Island may seem like grasping at straws.

"It's a lot of times I've wondered if I made the right decision about staying," Kitching said. But now, at 54, he said. "I'm here for the duration."

Some of the vacant homes have been bought by mainlanders, for use as vacation or seasonal homes. Islanders also have landed a couple modest grants to improve tourism signage and to get video and computer equipment to provide distance learning at the school.

"I think the renaissance has already started," said Gretchen Maneval, a Towson resident and trained planner who is coordinating efforts to fulfill the Smith Island group's goals.

Maneval, 41, said she and her husband bought a home on Tylerton two years ago, and spend weeks at a time there with their two young children. She said she was drawn to the island by fond recollections of a school field trip there when she was growing up.

"It's like stepping back in time 100 years," she said. "There's this incredible senses of culture, community and work ethic, living on the bounty of the bay."

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The remoteness and natural surroundings are "like walking into the pages of National Geographic magazine," she added, recounting how they were escorted by dolphins on a boat ride and spent a day on a sandy beach with no one else in sight.

Islanders say they'd like more tourists and part-timers like the Manevals, to diversify the fishing-based economy, but not enough to alter the community's quiet, rural character.

Not everyone is sold on the plan. Ed Dize, 67, suggested that limits on commercial fishing licenses and the cost of a boat and gear, including hundreds of crab pots, would be too big a hurdle for many who might want to try learning to be a waterman.

Others say they're still relying on the religious faith that's a strong force on the island, which has no municipal government or other organizing institution.

"If God wants us here, we'll be here," said Marge Laird, 66, as she and her husband, Larry, 68, a ferry captain, headed home from the dock at Tylerton. Like many islanders, they get around by electric golf cart. "If he don't," she added, "he'll make a way for us to leave and prosper."

There has been a trickle of newcomers, though, in recent years — and some returnees, like Jessie Marsh. He left his hometown of Tylerton 20 years ago, and gave up being a full-time waterman to work elsewhere for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Annapolis-based environmental group. Now 50 years old, he's back, helping teach schoolteachers and students about the bay at the foundation's education center here, and looking to get back into fishing full-time again eventually.

"The future's iffy," he acknowledged. "But I'm glad to be back — and I don't intend to leave again."

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