Watermen go from harvesting oysters to hauling tourists

Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen reinvent themselves in an effort to stay afloat

May 22

“All the empty shells are the oysters that have died,” Captain Ed Farley says. “But we do have some live oysters mixed in here.” Farley bends to sort through the oysters on the deck of his skipjack, the H.M. Krentz. “This oyster bed,” he tells the tourists assembled in front of him, “died in 1985 from the parasites that wiped out the rest of the area.”

A middle-aged travel agent from New Jersey named Lori Zimmerman asks, “Don’t they know how to manage the parasite?”

Farley fixes her with a stare. “We haven’t learned how to manage the common cold, have we?” he asks.

Zimmerman looks abashed.

“The answer’s no,” Farley says.

“Yeah, okay.”

Farley, perhaps recognizing his gruffness, launches into a scientific explanation of the parasite that destroyed this bed.

When you begin a new career at 61, you’re bound to hit snags.

Farley is building a tourism business around his expertise in the Chesapeake Bay. After a winter spent oystering, Farley fills his summer with educational sailing tours on his historic skipjack. This sail-powered oystering boat is part of a rapidly dissolving fleet; with only 23 still in the water, he says, a mere six skipjacks continue to oyster. The dwindling fleet was designated one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002.

Watermen have long faced obstacles. Commercial fishing has been battered by pollution, climate change, high demand and unsteady yields. “The disease” — actually caused by two parasites, dermo and MSX — has all but destroyed the bay’s oyster populations. In 2008, the blue crab population hit record lows, and segments of the fishery were declared an economic disaster. Calling someone’s livelihood a disaster wouldn’t seem to bode well, but the news was welcomed among fishermen: The announcement triggered a wave of federal funding to help sustain what remains of the watermen community.

Part of the money went to the Watermen’s Heritage Tourism Training Program, where Farley and about 110 others attended three-day workshops that helped the watermen design tourism businesses centered on the history, environment and maritime heritage of Maryland and Virginia. Participants spanned generations, from teenagers to retirees. Watermen designed tours that played to their strengths: harvesting crabs or oysters; or offering fishing excursions, sailing sessions, lighthouse tours, marshland hikes and crab feasts.

Farley, a commercial oysterman for four decades, designed an ecology-focused sailing tour. He says the program set out to “train people to look at being on the water as a waterman differently.” Now, instead of bemoaning the die-off of oysters, he brings attention to it with his tours.

When Farley began oystering commercially in 1972, Maryland watermen were harvesting 2.5 million bushels a year. “When we had plentiful oysters, it looked like it was a great way to make a living ’til the day you die,” he says. But after MSX and dermo hit in the 1980s, yields fell as low as to 300,000 bushels a year. The bottom dropped out in 2004, when all watermen in Maryland pulled in a total of 26,000 bushels. Since then, numbers have seesawed.

“Over time, watermen started taking their jobs as an electrician or a plumber or a painter,” Farley says. Development was rampant in the ’90s, so watermen had no trouble finding work on land. When Farley began, there were about 4,000 oystermen working in Maryland. In 2011, there were 698 licenses sold for the oyster fishery.

Farley still oysters in winter, but in mid-April he takes his oystering rig off the Krentz and fixes up the boat for a different kind of catch. He charges $35 a person, plus a 10 percent tourism tax from St. Michaels, and he’s certified to carry as many as 32 passengers. “It’s created a year-round operation for the boat,” he says. “Most skipjacks, historically, just sat idle all summer.”

But change is not always easy.

A waterman’s work is traditionally a solitary, quantitative activity. Watermen leave early in the morning, collect their harvests, then head home with the satisfaction of a job well done. “With tourism, it’s less direct,” Farley says. “You’re dealing with the whims of the tourist.” This is a subtle but important change in his industry, from goal-oriented harvesting to more nuanced customer service.Tourism also represents a change in how he deals with people. When he sees a member of his crew doing something stupid or unsafe, he says, “I just yell at ’em!” But when someone is paying him for a tour, he must tread carefully. “Nobody wants to go out with an unhappy, mean captain.”

In addition to learning how to interact with customers, Farley has also faced technological challenges. For several weeks last spring, the booking service on his Web site told potential customers that the boat was still under repairs after the oyster season, even though Farley was open for business. He accepts credit cards only through a booking service, because he doesn’t want to bother with learning a new system. “I’m not electronically wired,” he says.

Back on the deck of the Krentz, Farley reaches for an empty shell to show his passengers. “This is a ‘box,’ which is an oyster that died,” he says, wiping green muck from the outside of the rough shell. “These boxes are important because they create habitat for things that want to live inside of them.”

He pauses, taking in the expectant looks on his guests’ faces. Then he pulls the half-open shell apart. A small mud crab falls to the deck and scuttles from side to side. Farley’s guests are suitably impressed. “It’s so cute!” one woman exclaims. The crab’s drab colors match the old oyster shell perfectly, Farley explains, keeping him safe from predators.

On the bay, life rises from death every day.


As oyster yields have dropped, watermen have turned to helping tourists catch blue crabs or offering educational tours of the bay. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

The watermen came to the workshops in the blustery months of February and March 2012. It was far too cold for crabbing, and oystering was winding down. They wore soft flannel button-up shirts and waterproof jackets and kept their hats on inside. They gathered in a large garage converted into a meeting room on Deal Island; in a church hall near Tilghman Island; in an old school-turned-community-hall in Galesville; at the Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons Island; in the town hall of Rock Hall.

Many of the participants knew how to run commercial fishing charters, and a handful, like Farley, had partnered with educational institutions and museums to assist on tours. But they attended this training to learn how to create their own tourism businesses.

“The first day, it was pretty quiet,” Mike Vlahovich admits. Vlahovich, the director of the nonprofit Coastal Heritage Alliance, developed the training curriculum and ran the workshops.

“For years, they have just been reacting as if they’re the victims — and maybe in some cases they are,” Vlahovich says. “But I was trying to get them to see how important it’ll be for them to become proactive. They’ve got to demand that they’ve got a seat at the table in regards to the state’s decisions on how tourism money is spent.”

In his workshops, he taught watermen the importance of taking ownership of their heritage. “It would be better to try to ensure that the visitors that come to your community learn about who you are, learn about your traditions,” he says. Those are the kinds of tourists the watermen should work to attract: “People that want to see you survive.” His goal is not just to provide watermen with an alternative source of income; he also wants to help preserve their way of life. “If visitors want to meet people of the culture, there better be a culture left,” he says.

Vlahovich first introduced elements of “thematic tour development,” which is a fancy way of saying “stories.” He encouraged participants to develop themes and story arcs about their heritage and to identify historical figures, from Capt. John Smith to local figures. “The world doesn’t know about them, but you know about them,” Vlahovich told the watermen. History and storytelling are highly valued in coastal communities, which is one of the reasons the heritage tourism training program received funding. “In a lot of cases, they sort of took for granted what they knew their whole life,” Vlahovich says.

But of the 110 or so watermen who attended — and received $100 a day to do so — only 12 are offering tours two years later.

Eighty watermen became certified tour operators — far more than expected by Joanna Ogburn, program director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, the nonprofit that designed and managed the training program. Vlahovich and Ogburn are orchestrating a major marketing push, targeting potential tourists in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Vlahovich believes that the watermen simply need more encouragement to focus on tours. “It’s like holding their hand a little bit,” he says.

Vlahovich estimates that it will be three or four years before communities will be able to see the effects of the training. However, he is confident that there is demand for heritage tours.

Every year, 35 million tourists visit Maryland. Tourism has a $14 billion impact on the state’s economy and accounts for 131,000 jobs, says Hannah Byron, assistant secretary for the division of tourism, film and the arts in Maryland. Visitors to Maryland, Byron says, “love everything about the water, they love everything about seafood, and they love storytelling.” The watermen’s program “really combines all of those things nicely.”

Byron, though, is sympathetic to the watermen whose personalities don’t naturally blend with the tour guide business. “If you’re an introvert and you don’t like children and dealing with a lot of questions, it might not be your bag,” she says.

Still, she thinks that the tourism training will have a ripple effect. The watermen who do well, she says, will share their knowledge and experience with friends and neighbors who did not attend the workshops. “I think when they see one of their own doing well,” Byron says, “that will go a long way.”


Capt. Ed Farley jokes with Beth Lowe, left, and Elaine Zacheis, both of Frederick, while on a tour. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

It’s 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and Wade Murphy III is already on the water. Seated in the workboat, Murphy’s five young passengers yawn and paw at their eyes.

“Guys, pay attention,” Sean O’Neill says. His four sons — Jake, 20; Justin, 18; John, 11; and Sean Jr., 9 — and their neighbor, 9-year-old B.J. Kuhnley, perk up. They watch Murphy as he powers the boat to the 3,000-foot trotline he had set up a few minutes earlier, his net at the ready. He hooks the line over a metal device at the back of the boat called a roller, and the line rises from the muddy bottom. Chicken necks, tied to the rope at intervals of two or three feet, flip and spin over the roller before sinking back into the water. He scoops crabs feeding on the chicken necks, and one crab after another flies from his metal net into the bucket.

“Whoa!” the younger boys chorus, peering inside the bucket. Even the older boys lean in and point.

“Oh, they love this,” O’Neill says, smiling.

The O’Neills live along the New Jersey coast. “We can go out fishing whenever we want, so we wanted to try crabbing,” the father explains. This charter was booked, with a 25 percent commission, through the Harrison House Inn, where Murphy receives about half his bookings per year. On this trip, O’Neill is paying $99 per person.

Murphy powers away to give the crabs a few minutes to begin eating again. He stands in front of the boys. “You see how I did that? I didn’t miss any — not a one,” Murphy booms, punctuating his words by karate-chopping one hand into the other.

Justin and John line up next to Murphy, nets ready. Murphy spots a crab rising through the murky water and points it out. John scoops up his first crab but misses the next one; Justin, standing to his brother’s right, narrowly makes the catch. The other boys cheer and move closer. Sean O’Neill holds up his iPhone to record it all.

The boys begin to relax and talk a little. They miss three in a row.

“You’re talking, you’re talking, you’re not watching!” cries Murphy, clapping his hands.

The boys knuckle down again, eyes fixed on the water.

Murphy first started crabbing when he was a boy himself; he had his own 30-foot workboat when he was 13. Now 42, Murphy is part of the generation who had to leave the water before their careers really got started. He began working in construction when he was 17. “I can make more money on shore, building houses,” Murphy says. “Normally, I might be putting a roof on. I’d rather be doing this!” he adds. “I would love to be out here every day. Just hard to make enough money to feed your family, pay your bills.”

So Murphy works in construction all week and runs tours on the weekend. He was already familiar with tourism from his father’s skipjack sailing business but attended tourism training to learn marketing and customer service. His biggest challenge is getting the word out to tourists. He hasn’t advertised, depending instead upon referrals. He needs to set up a Web site. That’s where the additional training that Mike Vlahovich and Joanna Ogburn have planned will come in handy.

His father, Wadey, the senior Murphy, is well known among watermen as an entertaining storyteller. “I’m not as big a performer as he likes to be,” Murphy says. “I don’t try to put on a show or anything.”

Tourism may not be a solution for every waterman, Murphy points out. Some people don’t enjoy dealing with the same uninformed questions day after day. “A lot of them don’t like to be around people,” Murphy says. “Also, you have to keep your captain’s license. Lotta people don’t wanna go through the trouble of dealing with it.” In addition, he says, there’s not enough charter business for every waterman to make the switch. Some will be pushed out by lower and lower seafood yields, and retiring watermen will not be replaced by a younger generation. What’s more, tourists are unreliable; one shift in the weather, and they cancel their plans. Are watermen simply trading one uncertain industry for another?

Despite the boys’ pride over catching scores of crabs, they miss half a dozen each time. After the first pass, John says he missed so many because he forgot his glasses. Murphy turns to Justin. “What about you — you wear glasses?” he asks. Justin shakes his head. “Maybe you ought to get some!” Murphy cackles, but Justin doesn’t look amused. “I’m just kidding; you did a fine job,” Murphy says.

Normally, he guarantees a bushel a person. It’s frustrating for Murphy to see crabs get away, because at the end of the day his passengers may be upset when they don’t have more. With younger boys like these, he tries to be patient, but he’s more stern when older passengers miss a catch. “People don’t realize when they miss them like that, it makes a big difference,” Murphy says. “I like people to be happy.” His concern may stem from his roots as a catch-based waterman. Or perhaps if passengers catch fewer crabs, he’ll be forced to lower his rates.

As the tour winds down, the younger boys begin getting restless. B.J. stands on the left side of the boat and leans out over the water. Murphy reprimands him — a sharp utterance that’s lost under the roar of the engine, but his meaning is clear. Sean Jr. clambers up on the square area above the motor and jumps around; Murphy keeps a wary eye on him and seems relieved when they reach the dock. As Sean O’Neill climbs off the boat, he slips Murphy a crisp $100. Murphy smiles. “I guess he had a good time!”

Murphy has four girls and a boy at home. He doesn’t think there’s a future for them in fishing, but he’s optimistic about his kids doing tourism one day. When he was younger, he thought he’d follow in his own father’s footsteps. “Back then, there was a lot of crabs,” he says wistfully. “I guess everyone thought they’d always be there.”

Melody Schreiber is the program manager at the International Reporting Project and a freelance writer.

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