Believing In God's Harvest
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Where in the Bible does it say God will save the Chesapeake crabber?
Down on Tangier Island, Va., some people say it's in Ezekiel: "There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh." Never mind that Ezekiel was written about the ancient Middle East; that half-salty sea sure sounds like the bay. And "large numbers of fish" could certainly mean blue crabs.
Here on Maryland's Smith Island -- at the heart of a waterman's culture still on fire from an 1800s revival -- they turn to John. That gospel tells how the disciples once fished all night but pulled their nets up empty.
Then Jesus arrived.
"He said to them, 'Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some,' " waterman Morris Goodman Marsh read during a recent church service. "And they cast their net, and they were not able to haul it in, because it was so full of fish."
"Are we ready to cast our nets on the other side?" speaker Dwight "Duke" Marshall Jr. asked afterward, making the story a parable about faith for modern-day fishermen. "To give full trust in the Lord and what he has in store for us?"
Around the Chesapeake Bay, this will be a crab season to try men's souls. In a year that promises high gas prices and new limits on their catches, many watermen say they have been steadied by their inherited brand of fervent Protestantism. But still they worry: What does He have in store? And will they be ready for it?
"I describe it like you've got a hurricane coming. And you've got that dread hanging over you, where you don't know what's going to be left when it's past," said James "Ooker" Eskridge, a waterman and mayor of Tangier Island in the lower Chesapeake. "These are the times that test your faith."
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake has fallen about 70 percent since the early 1990s, due to warmer waters, pollution from cities and farms and heavy fishing. This spring, Virginia and Maryland officials pledged to cut the harvest of female crabs by 34 percent.
They insist that they're not trying to save crabs by ruining the men who catch them.
"Those that would say that we're going to need less crabbers are the same [people] saying that the bay is condemned to perpetual decline," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said this month after he requested federal disaster relief for watermen this season. "I don't accept that."