Watermen Workforce Challenges and Opportunities: Lessons from the Chesapeake Bay Region
This issue of Community Scope will offer a broad overview of the challenges faced by today’s watermen that may be precipitating their declining numbers and will discuss alternative and supplemental employment options that may be available to them.
“The Chesapeake is a wonderful vacation spot on a quiet summer’s day, but it can be an unforgiving tyrant that same night when the winds rise. The men who work it are quiet heroes, echoes of that day long distant when most Americans made their living close to nature.”
- James A. Michener, The Watermen1
Stretching over 200 miles from Northern Maryland to Southeastern Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay’s place in the American story harkens back to the earliest days of the thirteen colonies when access to waterways and fishing were vital to the survival of the earliest settlers. In Jamestown in the summer of 1607, colonists subsisted on sturgeon and crabs found along the shallow waters of the James River, one of the major tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.2 In the nearly 410 years since, fishing on the Chesapeake Bay has become a way of life to many who work there, known as watermen.3
Often considered a generational occupation, watermen are men and women who make a living by fishing, crabbing and oyster harvesting.4 Many of today’s watermen of the Chesapeake Bay fish the same waters trawled by their parents and grandparents.5 Some experts, however, have noted that the number of individuals in the watermen workforce seems to be declining.
While there is no definitive source that quantifies the number of watermen currently working in the Chesapeake Bay, estimates indicate that the workforce has declined from more than 10,000 individuals in the 1990s to fewer than 3,000 active watermen today.6 Fluctuations in the stock of shellfish and finfish in the Chesapeake Bay can make earning a living on the water a challenging prospect, as can the level of income associated with the occupation. In 2015, the estimated median hourly wage for fishers and fishing-related workers in the United States was $13.14, which fell below $17.40, the median hourly earnings for all occupations.7 This hourly wage corresponded to an annual wage of $27,340 for fishers in 2015, which places fishers, on average, just above the 2015 poverty level for a family of four.8
This Community Scope will offer a broad overview of the challenges faced by today’s watermen that may be precipitating their declining numbers and will discuss alternative and supplemental employment options that may be available to them.
The content of this publication is largely informed by interviews of watermen and other industry experts, including those who study workforce issues in the Chesapeake Bay region. For more information about those interviews, see Appendix A and for the geographic area of interest, see Map 1. Additional content reflects knowledge gleaned from news articles and a recent history of the Chesapeake Bay’s environment and surrounding workforce.