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The Shrinking of the Watermen Workforce

Community Scope
2016 Issue 3

“Today, Virginia’s watermen are … living inside a perfect storm of market forces, politics, environmental crisis, and cultural change: a time of deep uncertainty about the bay’s future and their own."

--David Bearinger, Watermen of the Chesapeake9

Why are the ranks of watermen dwindling? Watermen, and experts who work with them, point to several factors that help explain the decline in workforce numbers, including stock fluctuations, government regulation and an aging workforce. First, fluctuations of stock in Chesapeake Bay fisheries make consistent income unreliable at best. The Chesapeake Bay oyster and blue crab fisheries have both experienced drastic fluctuations over time. As of 2008, the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery was just one percent of its historical high, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office.10 Peak levels of oyster harvesting have not been seen since the 1880s, when the Bay yielded roughly 17,000 bushels to about 50,000 oystermen. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, this amounted to over 120 million pounds of oyster meat. Meanwhile, as of 2007, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery was on the verge of collapse. Concentrated efforts to address environmental degradation and fishing pressure have reestablished the sustainability of blue crabs in the Bay, but the population continues to fluctuate.

Relatedly, government regulations — which are frequently designed to protect against overfishing — may restrict fishing activity to a degree that makes it an unsustainable livelihood and may cause watermen to leave the occupation. Finally, the watermen workforce is widely reported to be an aging workforce, like many agricultural occupations.11 As increasing numbers of watermen reach retirement age, they exit the workforce, and experts largely report that younger workers are not becoming fishers at a rate of replacement that maintains the total size of the workforce.

Fluctuations in Stock

The volatility in the amount of oysters, crabs and fish undoubtedly puts considerable pressure on watermen who traditionally work in the Bay. The watermen have felt the effects of the declining oyster fishery, and oyster harvest license data reflect this. As of 2009, just 1,000 people in Virginia and Maryland carried oyster harvesting licenses, which translates to about two percent of around 50,000 oyster harvesters in the late 1800s.12 From 1985 to 2010, oyster harvests fell by 90 percent, and the amount of oystermen dropped by 75 percent.13

As previously noted, fluctuations in harvests are not confined to oysters. Blue crab stock in the Chesapeake Bay has also fluctuated significantly in recent years. The 2016 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimated that the 2016 blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay was 553 million crabs, as shown in Figure 1. While this indicates a population recovery from the population’s lowest point in 2007 — at which point there were just 251 million crabs in the Bay — this population increase does not represent a full recovery.14 According to Tom Murray, associate director for Advisory Services at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), when oyster stock is reduced, that puts increased pressure on blue crabs and finfish, or marine animals that are not shellfish, as watermen seek non-oyster fisheries to maintain their income.

Figure 1: Estimated Blue Crab Population in the Chesapeake Bay (1990–2016)

Figure 1

Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 2016 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey.

Most watermen, Murray notes, will substitute out for other fisheries when there is reduction in certain fishery stock in order to keep their boats working and their crewmen employed. For example, as the blue crab fishery has fluctuated in stock, watermen have turned to finfish to maintain their income.15

While there are cases of watermen assisting with Bay species repopulation efforts, evidence that they are doing so for payment remains slight. In the early 1990s, for example, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in response to an extremely low oyster population, recommended a three-year ban on oyster harvesting, during which time out-of-work watermen would be hired to help repopulate the Bay’s oysters. The ban was met with immediate resistance from watermen and there were concerns about the cost associated with transitioning watermen into oyster repletion workers.16 The moratorium, which Maryland state officials said would effectively shut down the industry, ultimately did not go forward.17 More recently in 2013, watermen and scientists collaborated to plant underwater farms in the Bay, but watermen paid $1,500 each to participate in the project. These funds, plus $150,000 from the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, paid for equipment and oyster larvae.18

Government Regulation

The role of government regulation also appears to be a constraint on the watermen workforce. Chesapeake Bay fisheries are largely regulated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the State of Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commissions, which cover both states. Time limits, gear restrictions and catch limits are all typically regulated for the various fisheries in the Bay, and a summary of these regulations can be found in Table 1.19 While some regulations meant to protect the Bay and its wildlife have been in effect for decades, including the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act that was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1988, much of the regulation for both Maryland and Virginia is more recent.

In the oyster fishery, for example, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) in August of 2016 placed a moratorium on the sale of new oyster licenses, which require an “all gear resource user fee,” for working public oyster grounds until the number of user fee holders falls below a certain number.20 The rule, driven by environmental concerns and the fear that the Bay’s ecosystem would not exist for future generations, also restricts watermen from transferring licenses to anyone other than family members or to another person “if the transferring individual has 40 or more days of oyster harvesting during the previous calendar year.”21 This rule is meant to reduce or eliminate the amount of part-time oystermen.22 According to Tom Murray, this outcome is largely the goal for fishing regulations across many fisheries. "The systems that have been put in place at the federal, state and regional levels have been trying to shrink the fishing effort," said Murray, who cited individual fishing quotas that set total allowable catch and limited entry regulations that restrict the number of fishers as two common examples. “All these regulations make [being a waterman] an increasingly risky investment for someone to get into."23 Quota systems have seen some success in fisheries. Individual transferable quotas, or ITQs, grant property rights to fishermen who own a share of total allowable catch. Some analysis suggests that evidence points to ITQs having successfully raised the value and quality of the stock.24 Still, some watermen oppose ITQ regulations. One waterman commented to a local news station in 2014, “They’ve got regulation after regulation piled on top of us, and they got more coming down the pike.”

Table 1: Oyster and Blue Crab Regulations in the Virginia Section of the Chesapeake Bay


Blue Crabs

Season Restrictions

It is unlawful to harvest clean cull oysters from the public oyster grounds and unassigned grounds except during lawful seasons that are separately identified for 16 lawful areas. There are seasons for each of the public oyster grounds, ranging from a start on October 1, 2016, through an end on May 31, 2017.

For blue crabs, the seasons are determined by the type of gear used to harvest the crabs. The lawful seasons for the commercial harvest of crabs by crab pot in 2017 is March 1 through December 20. For all other lawful commercial gear, the season is from April 1, 2017, through October 31, 2017.

Gear Restrictions

Oyster harvesting with gear other than hand tongs (pictured on page 6) is prohibited within certain areas of the Chesapeake Bay. Similarly, oyster harvesting with gear other than hand scrapes is prohibited in other areas. Hand tongs are large rakes that manually scoop oysters by being pushed together,25 while hand scrapes are motorized rake-like dredges.26

The main types of gear identified by VMRC’s regulations are various types of crab pots.


Oyster dredge licenses are required to harvest in public oyster grounds, and other licenses in certain cases are also required.

Multiple licenses are available for crabbing based on the amount of crab pots being used.

Source:“Pertaining to Restrictions on Oyster Harvest,” Chapter 4VAC 20-720-10 ET. SEQ, Virginia Marine Resources Commission

He went on to remark, “We just can’t stand much more.”27

Federal and local regulations may also impact the activity of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay, although less directly. Federal government regulations tend to focus more on point sources and non-point sources of pollution, including pipes, ditches and land runoff, while local governments manage land use within lands that are designated as environmentally sensitive by Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Designation and Management Regulations.28

Aging Workforce

In his essay “Watermen of the Chesapeake,” Virginia Foundation for Humanities’ director of grants and community programs David Bearinger writes, “Some watermen whose families have worked on the bay for generations are getting out of the business altogether; others are taking jobs on the mainland and working the water part-time. Those who remain are hanging on as best they can. Fewer and fewer young people are choosing hard work, long hours and [the] steady diet of uncertainty that come with life on the water.” Indeed, conversations with those who work in the industry also point to the aging of the watermen workforce as another reason for its declining numbers. Citing the increasingly strenuous nature of his work and the constraints on the ability to generate a profit, Don Pierce, a waterman since 1969, said, “Neither one of my grandsons have been on my boat to learn and take part in the industry. I don’t want them to work like I’ve had to work to be a success.”29

hand tongs

Photo by Jack Cooper

Hand tongs

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