Table of Contents
Download pdf

Following Those Who Follow the Water

Photograph: David Horseman, near the harbor in Chance, Maryland, takes a break from his work preparing his crabbing boat the Becky Rae for the upcoming season.


Bringing Anthropology
to the Bay

Anthropology Close to Home

Nature and Science

An Anthropologist's Journey

Spotlight on Research

This Issue's Videos:
Following the Watermen
Workboat Races

What watermen
from a remote Chesapeake community have to say to an anthropologist from the other side of the Bay could change the way we study and manage blue crabs.

David Horseman takes a break from his work preparing his crabbing boat the Becky Rae for the upcoming season. - by Skip Brown
A Life Among Watermen
By Jack Greer

Despite the cold on this early spring morning, David Horseman is down at the marina in Chance, Maryland, working on his boat, the Becky Rae. Named for his first two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel, she is a low-slung workboat, with blue bottom paint and a red waterline, some 43 feet long and 16 years old. According to Horseman, she has seen more than one diesel engine come and go, and he has done most of the diesel work himself. Not to mention the carpentry.

This year he's replacing some of the boat's "ceiling" - "What you'd call the floor," he says, smiling.

Horseman, who has lived his whole life in the small community of Chance on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore, will fish for hard crabs coming out of their winter sleep - then he'll switch to peelers, blue crabs ready to molt. Most watermen in this area pot for hard crabs or peelers, and only a couple run long bait lines, called trotlines. By mid-May they will be into the spring peeler run. Some watermen will have set aside male crabs (jimmies) to place in peeler pots. Female crabs (sooks), ready to shed and to mate, will climb into the pots, caught as they try to reach the male crabs.

The seasonal run of peelers forms part of a rhythm tied to the water, to the weather, to cycles that watermen have watched and followed for decades, for generations. But there are other people watching blue crabs as well: scientists and resource managers tracking trends in the blue crab fishery and in the Bay's abundant but ultimately finite crab population. They have found that the taking of soft crabs, for example, has grown Baywide in the past decade or so. During this same period, their scientific surveys show that the abundance of mature females in the Bay has dropped dramatically.

As the twentieth century drew to a close and the twenty-first century began, scientists warned that their data documented an ongoing decline in numbers of crabs in the Bay. For watermen, like Horseman and Roy Ford, these warnings meant the threat of more rules and tighter restrictions on how many crabs they could catch. It also meant a storm of controversy that would divide watermen from natural resource managers and from scientists who, through their studies, provided much of the information used to guide decision makers.

Preparing to cut fresh plywood for Becky Rae's new ceiling, Horseman looks up at the bow of his boat as if in anticipation of the new crab season just starting. He has no way of knowing how the cold and wet will hang on this spring, right through much of summer. He has no way of knowing that come September a different kind of storm named Isabel will find its way from the western coast of Africa to the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. This morning the sun is out, and soon, as happens every year, there will be crabs to catch.

Son of a waterman, Ryan Ford (top left) culls crabs as his father Roy pulls in the next pot. Soft crabs bring good money on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore, where watermen often land three-quarters of the state's soft crab harvest (top right). A crab boat heads into harbor at Wenona (bottom left). Roy Ford (bottom right) was one of the first watermen to take anthropologist Michael Paolisso out crabbing on the Chesapeake. Photos by Skip Brown.

Ryan Ford culls crabs - by Skip Brown soft crabs in a tray - by Skip Brown
crab boat - by Skip Brown Roy Ford - by Skip Brown

Paolisso came to the lower Eastern Shore to study not the crabs, but the crabbers.

The Conflict over Crabbing

It was the gathering storm over blue crabs that brought Michael Paolisso, a researcher who had never studied crabs, to the lower Eastern Shore to meet watermen like Horseman and Ford. New to the crab wars, Paolisso is an anthropologist, not a biologist, and he came here to study not the crabs, but the crabbers.

Paolisso has made the three-hour, 150-mile trip from his home in Washington, D.C. more times than he can count. The long drive delivers him to what seems another world - from an often frenetic pace amidst thick traffic to a slower-paced life in the communities of Deal Island, Chance and Wenona.

Surrounded by water, these Bayside villages seem set apart, isolated from the rest of Somerset County by broad tidal marshes to the east, and from the rest of the world by the wide open stretches of Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay to the west. Paolisso, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maryland College Park, has been coming here to speak with watermen and their families, to learn how they think, to better understand just who they are.

Like other researchers, Paolisso is engaged in an experiment. Can the tools of modern anthropology, he asks, be used to examine the growing conflict between watermen who catch crabs and the scientists and technical experts who track the ups and downs of the Bay's crab stock? Can those tools help to address, in some way, a troubling blue crab controversy that has led to law suits, economic uncertainty and political fall-out?

Paolisso refers to himself and his colleagues as "applied anthropologists." In their own way, they follow a path blazed by 20th century anthropologists like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss - researchers who lived for years among remote cultures, studying and learning local languages, rituals and myths, living day to day alongside their subjects in order to explain the distinctiveness of often closed societies. Those early anthropologists provided a mainstream lens through which to see what makes a culture unique, to better understand those who differ from us and yet who may have something in common.

The anthropological studies undertaken by Paolisso and his colleagues are "applied" not only because they focus on the practical concerns of their subjects, but also because they examine the potential for change. Among the crabbers of Deal Island, he found a blue crab debate that was at its roots not only a scientific but a cultural conflict.

When Paolisso began interviewing watermen in earnest, he walked into a world where things were not going very well - at least not where blue crabs were concerned. Harvests were declining, independent surveys were showing a shrinking crab stock, and some watermen were working harder to earn less. Whether or not the Bay blue crab was in trouble was, however, the subject of considerable disagreement. Some watermen, including many on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore where crabbing had remained strong, questioned whether there really was a crisis which would serve as justification for more regulation. For all these reasons, frustration among many watermen was rising like a tidal surge, and a good deal of anger was aimed at "the State." When watermen speak of the State they are most often referring to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency charged with managing Maryland's recreational and commercial fisheries.

"There were some pretty harsh words," says Paolisso, who listened carefully to watermen both in private interviews and at public hearings designed to gather stakeholder input.

At many of these public forums - especially those held near commercial fishing communities - Paolisso witnessed deep divisions between watermen and managers and a broad sense of mistrust. In some cases watermen accused the State and the scientists who advised them of "lying," presumably to push through their regulatory program.

"What I wanted to do," says Paolisso, "was to understand the nature of these disagreements, to understand better what was dividing them." In his view, each side was, for the most part, acting in good faith. The scientists were presenting the best analysis of the blue crab data they had collected. The watermen, on the other hand, were countering with opinions shaped by observing blue crabs up close during long days and years of working the water.

Yet the conclusions reached by each group were not only different, but seemed to focus on different kinds of information, seemed to place emphasis on different parts of the problem. Paolisso wanted to understand those differences.

This, then, is largely why Paolisso has come to the lower Eastern Shore - to discover not only the rough wisdom of Chesapeake watermen, but what he calls their "cultural models."

Cultural models, explains Paolisso, are perceptual frames we carry with us wherever we go. No matter what picture the world presents, he says, that picture will be filtered through a frame - a system of deeply held beliefs and values that shapes the way information comes to us.

Poets and philosophers have long understood this dynamic. We "half create" and half perceive, wrote the English poet William Wordsworth two hundred years ago. In fact, much of modern philosophy has dealt with precisely this problem - the struggle to determine and articulate the degree to which what we perceive is shaped by what we expect to see, by beliefs and assumptions we bring with us. Even in science, the most objective of disciplines, philosophers like Thomas Kuhn have argued that day by day most scientists work within the context of prevailing ideas, or "paradigms" - the lenses through which hypotheses are made and experiments structured. At intervals, Kuhn argues, these paradigms shift, as when the Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) presented convincing evidence for the Copernican view that the earth revolved around the sun (and not the other way around). Or when Albert Einstein argued that space could curve and light could bend. For those clinging to the old paradigms, such "redefinitions" can appear cataclysmic.

For applied anthropologists like Paolisso the question is not so much a philosophical as a practical one. For example, precisely how do the cultural models of watermen differ from those of farmers, or scientists, or resource managers? What fundamental beliefs, based on personal knowledge, religious faith and experience, underlie a waterman's model of how nature behaves, or of how people should behave? What fundamental beliefs, informed by academic training, affect the way a scientist approaches the natural world and the people who harvest its resources? In what ways are these beliefs connected to particular groups living in particular places - whether they are scientists, who come from academic and perhaps even urban backgrounds, or watermen, who are most often tied to the coastal communities and local rivers where they live and work? Finally, given these differences, can watermen and scientists ever understand each other?

Awash in wire pots, Wenona (top left( lies near the heart of Tangier Sound's rich crabbing grounds. For nearly twenty years, Arby Holland (top right) has run the local general store in Wenona, at this island's southern tip. Taking a break from Arby's cozy back room (bottom left), Arby Holland joins watermen (from right to left) Paul Holland, Ted Webster (standing) and Albert Hoffman for a game of "58" (bottom right). Photos by Skip Brown

Wenona, near Tangier Sound's rich crabbing grounds - by Skip Brown Arby Holland - by Skip Brown
Arby's General Store sign - by Skip Brown Arby Holland joins watermen (from right to left) Paul Holland, Ted Webster (standing) and Albert Hoffman - by Skip Brown

Top of Page

[Chesapeake Quarterly]
Other Issues

[Chesapeake Quarterly Bar]
[Maryland Sea Grant] Maryland Sea Grant NOAA
Chesapeake Quarterly is published by Maryland Sea Grant
Privacy Policy | © 2024 Maryland Sea Grant