Blue murder

The blue crabs of Chesapeake Bay, on America's East Coast, are among the country's most famous delicacies. But the crabs - and the fisherman whose lives depend on them - are under threat as never before. Andrew Buncombe visits a community fighting for its life
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The Independent US

Russell Dize is the 10th generation of his family to have made his living working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He will almost certainly be the last.

Russell Dize is the 10th generation of his family to have made his living working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He will almost certainly be the last.

His son is an intellectual property lawyer who lives in suburban Connecticut. He had pondered life as a waterman, a life of calloused hands and days in all seasons spent bringing in the catches of crabs and oysters for which the bay has become world-famous; in the end he was forced to confront economic realities and accept a job behind a desk. Russell says he felt disappointed but he is not bitter. "He worked with me for four years but in the end he decided there was no future for him," says the good-natured 64-year-old, standing with a group of fellow watermen at a petrol station on Tilghman Island. "He lives up there but he's back every time he gets the chance."

In its own way, Russell's tale of disappointment speaks to a much bigger story about the fate of Chesapeake Bay, a jewel of America's East Coast that has somehow been allowed to fall into a perilous state. As a result of pollution, the bay's fishermen have in recent years seen their catches get smaller and smaller, to the extent that there are barely any oysters left to dredge for. As for the famous Maryland blue crabs - the season for which started two weeks ago - catches are down and prices are up so far that in local restaurants, diners are more likely to find themselves eating crab cakes whose principal ingredient has been flown in from North Carolina, Texas or even South America. Going hand in hand with these falling catches is a slow, steady tearing of the bay's social fabric.

Some of the problems facing the Chesapeake are specific to the bay. Other factors, especially the population growth of coastal communities and the influx of wealthy outsiders buying second homes and driving up prices, are common to other locations. Everyone agrees that what is dangerously threatened is not simply the renowned seafood products but rather a way of life that can never be replicated.

It's unclear whether the latest attempts to try to prevent the decline will simply be a case of far too little, far too late. "Every year the number of watermen making their living on the bay gets smaller," says Dize, who can trace his family in the region back to 1672 and Smith Island, an outcrop in the middle of the bay about 60 miles south of Tilghman where the locals still speak what has been described as an Elizabethan dialect. "We now have about 50 per cent of the number of watermen we had 20 years ago."

The Chesapeake Bay is a huge yet magical inlet on the eastern seaboard within easy driving distance of Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. To the north it reaches almost as far as Wilmington, Delaware, while to the south its waters stretch to the naval base of Norfolk, Virginia. It drains an area of 64,000 square miles and a number of sizeable rivers, including the Potomac and the Susquehanna, empty into it. It is a place of astonishing sunsets and ghostly morning mists. It is a place of history and lore.

For centuries the bay and its deep waters that can turn from mill-pond-calm to tempestuous in a matter of moments has been settled and fished. The first Native Americans are believed to have started farming here in 1,000BC. European exploration and exploitation began following the establishment of the first new-world settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Over the next 350 years the bay became increasingly important as one of the nation's premier fishing grounds.

But the Chesapeake has proved to be more fragile than anyone around here imagined. Though it drains a vast area, the bay flushes very slowly, exacerbating the problem of pollution, created largely by an excess of nitrogen. Algae blooms consume oxygen, further increasing the toxicity, destroying the fish stocks, and microscopic pests such as Pfiesteria piscicida thrive. The locals have a phrase for the result: dead water.

"You can go out on the water at night and it looks green," says David Crow, a waterman, late one night, drinking a beer in the Osprey Bar. "With the exception of last year, which was very good, the catches have been mediocre. The crabs are getting smaller every year." Official estimates put recent harvests of blue crabs well below the long-term average weight of 73 million pounds a year. In 2003 the harvest totalled just 48 million pounds.

Of course, it hasn't gone unnoticed among local officials. A series of measures have been drawn up, and water-purity targets have been set. The Chesapeake Bay Program is an organisation established 20 years ago with representatives from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government. In a $600,000 advertising campaign aimed at people who may not usually be interested in environmental issues, the programme recently came up with a plan to highlight the threat to the region's beloved seafood, and the blue crab in particular. One television advert began with water running down a storm drain with a voiceover warning that spring rains can carry excess fertiliser into sewers and rivers leading to the bay, causing crabs to "suffocate slowly from lack of oxygen". Then a crab fills the screen, with water washing over it. "No crab should die like this," says the voice. "They should perish in some hot, tasty melted butter."

"A total of 16 million people live in the area that drains into the bay," says Chris Conner, a spokesman for the programme, when I ask him about the adverts. "We are trying to make people realise that the bay begins in their back yard. We have tried to reach people through their hearts and minds and now we are trying to reach them through their stomachs." Recent polls, he adds, suggested that 90 per cent of people living within the bay's watershed area were concerned about the Chesapeake's environmental decline but that few of those questioned believed they were able to do anything to help. "This a light-hearted approach to a serious problem," he says. "It's about getting people engaged, reaching them through their seafood."

But others see greater problems than the goings on in people's back yards. They see an underlying lack of political will to enforce effective changes. While sewage treatment plants, domestic garden fertiliser and run-off from roads all have a part to play in the bay's pollution, the biggest single offender - perhaps responsible for half of the total amount - is farming and agribusiness. Forty per cent of the nitrogen and 50 per cent of the phosphorous annually entering the bay comes from agricultural run-off. A great deal of this is from factory farms that produce poultry. On Maryland's eastern shore, it is estimated that chickens outnumber people by around 1,000 to one.

Howard Ernst is professor of political science at the US Naval Academy at nearby Annapolis and author of Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay. He believes there has been a persistent lack of co-operation from the authorities in the six states that drain into the bay. "Very few of the problems are fishing-related. The major issues are land-use and agricultural run-off," he says. "The population in the watershed area has doubled since the 1950s and it's still growing. Most live a stone's throw from the water. The forces of preservation are up against the forces of development."

Ernst argues that groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Program are spending just a fraction the sum required to halt the degradation, and are setting targets for water quality that are simply not ambitious enough. "Never has there been a bigger gap between what needs to be done and what is being done," he says. "We don't have policy-makers willing to pursue the policies. And if this region can't do it, with the phenomenal wealth, the science that is showing what needs to done, where is it going to be done?"

The fall-out, he adds, is obvious. Young people who would normally spend summers working for their families' fishing businesses now find themselves selling pizza in places such as Ocean City, a sprawling urban centre on the coast. Elsewhere, small towns are growing so fast that the authorities do not know how to deal with the amount of sewage for which they are now responsible.

"I'm a social scientist," says Ernst. "I judge the quality of the bay by the size of the collection plate every Sunday at the church on Tangier Island," another island in the bay where people have a unique dialect and where cars and alcohol are banned. "These people make their living from the bounty of the bay. The quality of life of these people tells me about the bay. Many communities are literally dying. There is nowhere else like it," says Ernst. "This is what we are losing. You cannot replace these things."

At stake, the more established locals will tell you, is not simply the famously sweet seafood but an entire way of life. These are the people who remember the days before the completion of the William Preston Lane Jnr Memorial bridge, an extraordinary, soaring structure, more than four miles long, linking the eastern shore (and ultimately the Atlantic beaches of Delaware) with what they call the mainland. Before the bridge was completed in 1973, and a smaller, previous bridge in 1952, people had to take a series of ferries to cross the Chesapeake. Now 25 million vehicles roar across the bridge every year, opening up the eastern shore to the sort of development that threatens these small coastal communities.

Already, say villagers who live on the water, tourism and residential development has replaced fishing as the area's primary lifeblood. Wealthy professionals from the nearby urban centres who flock to these coastal communities to buy up holiday and weekend homes are pushing property prices beyond the means of many who have lived here all their lives.

Kenny Stewart, a waterman who is married to Crow's sister, has watched while the numbers of people moving into the area has "exploded". "They want to buy up all the land here. They want to push the locals out," he claims. "The perfect example is the people who come here and then kick up a stink. They complain about our boats starting up at 3am. Development is killing the local watermen. They have all these big houses and their lawns are like carpets."

The tension is centred not just on the early starts. The watermen tell me that the outsiders complain about fishermen leaving nets and pots on their driveways, and about the smell. For all the outsiders' purported desire to live on the coast within a fishing community, it seems that a number of them do not enjoy the reality that goes with such a dream.