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Volume 2, Number 3
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Following Those Who Follow the Water

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map showing the location of Deal Island in Somerset County, Maryland

A Place Far Removed

David Horseman will tell you that he does not live in Deal Island, though the map may suggest that he does. "I live in Chance," Horseman says, smiling with patience for those unschooled in local geography. Chance lies at the end of a long road heading west and south toward the Bay from Princess Anne, Maryland. At Chance a slender concrete bridge connects the mainland to Deal Island and then, as the island reaches its end, another small bridge graces the remote harbor of Wenona, a kind of land's end for this part of the Eastern Shore. To further confuse matters, Chance was once called Rock Creek, and the local church is called the Rock Creek United Methodist Church.

For Horseman, and for most who grew up here, the bridges that connect them also define some very distinct divisions. When he was young Horseman's mother warned him, "Don't go across the bridge." But if Chance or Wenona or the community of Deal Island cling to their differences, they also see themselves as closely linked through work, marriage and local social life, particularly in contrast to larger communities - including the growing suburban enclaves that increasingly surround the Chesapeake. Like many traditional communities, the watermen and their neighbors on Tangier Sound are facing a tough challenge: making a living from an increasingly populated Chesapeake Bay.

A faded sign above Arby's, the local general store in Wenona (no relation to the fast food chain) says, "It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here." The remoteness of the Deal Island area has provided Paolisso with a valuable field setting where watermen communities have, over time, been less influenced by outside attitudes. The communities are, in a sense, less "assimilated," and if there is any part of the Bay likely to escape the uncertain change brought by development, it may be here.

Not only do the waters of Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake surround Deal Island, but in many places even the landscape lacks substance and definition. With its long low points of land, the Deal Island area shares less with the region's farm fields, highways and chicken houses and more with the tidal marshlands and countless guts and creeks that reach far up Fishing Bay and nearby rivers - the Honga, Nanticoke and Wicomico. Like its sister islands, Deal answers to the tide and, as it has for centuries, to the rising sea.

Looking for a better season, workboats rigged for oystering wait in Wenona harbor. With the decline of the Bay's oyster stocks, watermen have banked their hopes on the blue crab, the Chesapeake's last great fishery.

 workboats rigged for oystering wait in Wenona harbo  - by Skip Brown

In this marshy outpost, Paolisso has discovered a distinct and for him very different culture, the culture of Chesapeake watermen. "They draw a very clear line when it comes to who is a waterman and who isn't," says Paolisso, though for an outsider it may be hard to say exactly where that line falls. A part-time crabber may or may not be a waterman, he says, depending on background, experience, attitude - a host of subtle attributes.

Though not everyone works the water here, water dominates the island's identity, as witnessed by the sign welcoming travelers to the "Home of the Skipjacks" - the rake-masted oyster sloops native to this region. Deal Island serves as one of the last remaining ports for the Bay's aging fleet of skipjacks, honored as Maryland's official state boat. Alongside the low-slung workboats so characteristic of Bay watermen, skipjacks like the City of Crisfield, the Somerset, the Fanny Daugherty, the Caleb Jones and the Ida May often adorn the harbors of Deal Island and Wenona. Come oyster season, these old sailboats leave home, driven north to search out the few remaining oysters in the upper Bay.

With the demise of the oyster fishery, crabbing is now king in this part of the Chesapeake. Soft shells are by far the most lucrative catch, bringing watermen a good dollar or more per crab. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in 2002 soft crabs made up only five percent of Maryland's blue crab harvest, but some twenty-two percent of the value. Watermen like Horseman, Roy Ford and others have invested in shanties that house long trays for shedding large numbers of peeler crabs. As Ford points out, this is a full-time family business during the season, with wives and children playing a key role by monitoring trays (still called "floats") and picking out crabs after they shed and before the other crabs can eat them or bad water can kill them.

With each of Deal Island's three communities claiming about 300 people, this is a tight-knit world. Time seems to stand still here, though clear evidence of its passing has marked some of the island's structures - like one of the island's few brick buildings, the Deal Island bank, long abandoned, with vines climbing the walls, its empty windows counting seasons come and gone.

According to Paolisso, Deal Island presents a welcome contrast to city living - there is no constable, he says, or other symbol of authority, only a Lions Club and a volunteer fire department. And any visitor will notice the number of churches, all quite separate, not only the one frequented by those of African descent, but several others as well, mostly Methodist, but all distinct. According to Paolisso, three of the churches use the same minister, who will preach a sermon at one church, and then move on to the next. "They are very independent," he says.

While the people of Chance, Wenona and Deal Island are friendly, the boundaries marking their water-borne geography are tightly drawn, and winning their trust can prove difficult for an outsider. No doubt Paolisso's genuine interest and easy manner played a role in his ability to befriend David Horsemen, Roy Ford and the others here. His enthusiasm is boyish and forthright. It is clear that he really wants to learn - about culling crabs, about how shedding floats work, about what watermen think and believe.

To draw a coherent picture of the waterman's world view, his "conceptual model," Paolisso had to collect and categorize his data in a rigorous and systematic way. He began with informal conversations, then he and his team moved into more highly structured interviews designed to target, for example, certain underlying assumptions about government, about pollution, about nature. The team also circulated surveys that raised particular questions about beliefs and values - some of those surveys were distributed by school children as a way of encouraging more participation. The anthropologists closely analyzed transcripts of surveys and interviews, at times using specially designed computer software programs employed by researchers to track repeated words and phrases, as well as recurring themes.

For Paolisso the world view of Chesapeake watermen, as revealed in their choice of words, represented a new, uncharted territory.

Mapping the Gulf

Paolisso's work could not have come at a more difficult time for the blue crab fishery. Not only were harvests faltering, but the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee (BBCAC) was then moving into high gear, trying to determine the true status of the crab stock and to recommend new targets for how many crabs watermen could catch.

When Paolisso first encountered the blue crab committee, the scientists working with its Technical Work Group had already set their sights firmly on establishing a maximum fishing threshold for crabs Baywide, something never before achieved in the Chesapeake. The Work Group, after much intense discussion and debate, reached a consensus on those limits, leading to a commitment on behalf of Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to reduce fishing pressure on the crab stock by some 15 percent.

Most working crabbers, however, disagreed with that consensus. Those who witnessed the public hearings or spoke privately with watermen and their families realized that decision makers faced a very tough challenge - in part because they lacked credibility with the crabbers they were charged with regulating. Watermen seemed to dismiss out of hand the data researchers had carefully collected and analyzed, in some cases accusing the scientists of ineptitude or outright lying. What, Paolisso wondered, was driving this mistrust, this apparent inability to communicate? How could a more technical world view be reconciled with one based more on tradition and personal experience?

When Ann Swanson, chair of the blue crab Technical Work Group, heard there was an anthropologist spending time living among the watermen, she invited Paolisso to join her technical team - the first time an anthropologist had been brought into this inner circle of marine biologists, ecologists, population dynamicists and other "hard science" researchers.

"After hearing from their constituents, the members [of the Chesapeake Bay Commission] made it clear that stakeholders needed a voice in these deliberations," Swanson says. It was clear, she says, that there was a serious level of miscommunication.

Paolisso's joining the Technical Work Group met with some skepticism. Compared with the quantitative models used in stock assessment, the anthropologist's science seemed less clear. After his first formal presentation to the group, however, their attitudes appeared to change. Discussion was lively. The cultural model that Paolisso presented based on his research - illustrating watermen's conceptualization of how nature, science and regulations combine to manage the blue crab fishery - drew intense interest from the other researchers, who were accustomed to constructing models of their own. In some way, it seemed, he had been accepted into their ranks. Just as he had built a relationship with watermen on the Eastern Shore, Paolisso was building another bridge - to the scientists, many of whom had spent years, perhaps even their entire careers, studying the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus.

His next challenge was to put the watermen and scientists in the same room, to have them explore not only their differences but their common interests. Following on two meetings between watermen and scientists on Tangier and Smith islands, sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and BBCAC, Paolisso set up a series of three structured dialogues, funded by Maryland Sea Grant. Here watermen and scientists could, with the help of Paolisso's facilitation team, share observations and opinions, working to get beyond the issues that so often divide them. Using both free-wheeling conversation and more structured exercises aimed at uncovering beliefs and assumptions, Paolisso worked to move the group from uneasy mistrust toward shared understanding. (See Nature and Science: The Watermen-Scientists Dialogues.)

"We were not expecting for one side to convince the other that they were right," Paolisso said. "We were just hoping to build a better level of understanding, of communication among groups that had not been communicating very well."

Researchers see a lack of opportunity for scientists, watermen and other stakeholders to come together to share their knowledge about the blue crab.

Toward Cultural Models

Early in the new crab season, about a dozen watermen, tired after a long day's work in the sun, drive over at dusk to the Rock Creek Church in Chance to hear Michael Paolisso speak about his findings. In the activity hall next to the Church, they find women preparing food and Paolisso and his assistant hooking up wires and cables on a digital projector. Seeing the fried chicken, potato salad and desserts spread out on long buffet tables, the watermen seem immediately hungry.

The anthropologists clearly feel comfortable in this community, but here in this church hall they face something of a moment of truth. For many months they have conducted interviews, surveys and other forms of data gathering. They have rented a house on the island, and spent many days and nights visiting and talking and learning. They have worked to bring watermen together with scientists and natural resource managers in three structured dialogue sessions. Tonight, they will represent some of their results to the very group they have been studying. How will this group react? Will they say, in effect, "Don't go across that bridge?"

It's an informal setting for a science presentation. In the back of the hall someone plays ping pong with one side of the table propped up on a floor that slants like a sloping deck. In the front of the room, watermen and anthropologists line up at the buffet and fill their plates. The spirit of a picnic fills the air, until everyone finds a seat, the ping pong stops and the anthropologists begin their talk.

They start by sharing some of what they've learned about watermen. They report that of the watermen surveyed in the Deal Island area, the average age is 48, with some watermen over 75. Of those surveyed, the average waterman in this area has been crabbing for 32 years. One person has been crabbing for 65 years - so Paolisso concludes that he must have started around age 10.

The watermen seem interested in these facts, and nod in agreement that most who work the water for a living are getting grayer.

Then Paolisso begins to report on some of the more fundamental findings. The majority of watermen responding to the survey said that they "agree" or "strongly agree" with these propositions:

  • We should just let the Bay's natural cycles follow their own rhythm.
  • Scientists should focus their research energies on pollution in the Bay.
  • "Effective management" should not be based only on science.
  • "Nature's unpredictability" provides the greatest assurance that natural resources like crabs will not be overharvested.
  • God and Nature are the best "managers" of natural resources.
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