CRISFIELD, Md. — "How's the crabbin'?" a sailor bellowed across the icy November sea to a waterman pulling crab pots. "Ain't too many crabs now," was the response in the singsong banter of the lower Eastern Shore. "What are you going to do?" the sailor pressed on.
"If there ain't no crabs, there ain't no oysters, and there ain't no fish. It's about time for me to get a real job. The problem is, I can't do nothin' else."
Independent watermen, linked to the Chesapeake Bay by hundreds of years of ancestry, are going through their biggest test of survival. Faced with unprecedented death on the floor of the bay, they must stretch themselves to their limits tracking the life that remains.
That means working sun to sun in summer and autumn catching soft-shells and blue crabs, then hooking up a dredge and chasing the crabs from Maryland into Virginia in the blustery winter. It's the crabs they are counting on since oysters, cherished since the days of the Roman Empire and once the backbone of the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry, have given out on them.
"Just being a brute doesn't do it anymore. No waterman alive has ever seen the bay in the shape it's in," said Grant (Hon) Lawson, a seventh-generation waterman from Crisfield, the one-time oyster mecca of Maryland, which, in 1910, had the largest registry of sailing vessels of any port in America.
Peak in 1884
At the state industry's peak in 1884, Maryland produced 15 million bushels of oysters. A century later, that figure hovers below 1 million bushels.
The parasite MSX, thriving in a bay that is highly saline from two years of drought, has killed off 90% of the oyster crop. The lower bay is virtually oysterless, and the beds in the upper bay are nearly raked clean by the heavy concentration of tongers--men armed with tools to scoop up their catch.
Disgruntled with the bay his family has fished since 1609, Lawson yanked up his last tongs and crab pots on Labor Day, 1986.
Although MSX does not kill other shellfish and fin fish, years of pollution have poisoned portions of most bay species save that crusty old crab, considered the "water buzzard" for its ability to live in filth.
The proud skipjack fleet that numbered more than 1,000 in its heyday, the last commercial fishing fleet under sail in the United States, is down to some 30 boats.
The Metompkin Bay Oyster Co. of Crisfield is getting a limited amount of oysters from around Cambridge and Tilghman Island, but the pickings are slim. In good Thanksgiving seasons, the company shucks six days a week. This November, it was down to three, maybe four days.
The oysters that remain are safe to eat and tasty--MSX hurts oysters, not people--yet, they are not as fleshy.
"The shell looks good, but the meat is not as fat," said I.T. Todd, founder of the Metompkin firm, a packing house of oysters, soft crabs and crab meat. "Normally, this time of year, we will shuck about six pints of meat per bushel. This year, we're shucking about four pints. And it's not going to come back next year," added Todd, a seafood packer for 40 years.
Todd's eyes tear from a fresh blast of sweet crab steam wafting through his plant, which sits on the gateway to the Tangier Sound. "Even if we have a couple of normal rainfalls, it's going to be four or five years before we have an oyster supply."
It takes three years for oyster larvae to grow into 3-inch harvest size, and 1987-88 should have been a year of oyster bounty. "Two years ago, we had one of the best spat seasons (settling of newborn oysters), so we thought we'd have a good year now. Then MSX comes along and upsets everything," said Larry Simms, president of the Maryland Waterman's Assn.
"Should there be a good spat right now, they would all die anyway because the salinity is so high," said Lawson, whose brother, Glenn, wrote a book on Hon, "The Last Waterman."
Scientists believe that the oysters were more susceptible to MSX because they were already weakened by other wastes. Pollution has taken its toll on most species that used to flourish in the bay, a 200-mile-long estuary fed by toxic chemicals, sewage, farm runoff and excess nutrients from 50 major tributaries.
Officials in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia are fighting back with a long-term regional pact, drafted in August and scheduled to be finalized in December. The plan calls for combined efforts to decrease wastes flowing into the bay by 40%.
This latest agreement marks the first milestone since 1983, when President Reagan committed his Administration to the cleanup of the bay in response to a massive Environmental Protection Agency study that found the bay to be a toilet of pollutants capable only of flushing out 1% of its contaminants. "Clearly an ecosystem in decline," was the conclusion.