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Way of Life Slipping Away Along Chesapeake's Edge

Watermen along the Chesapeake Bay face difficult times -- as dwindling crab and oyster populations leave many without enough to make a decent living, and forcing changes within the communities that reside along the bay.

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Chesapeake Bay is not tar-black and dead. It is not bright-green and toxic. It looks just as beautiful as ever, come a sunrise in Annapolis or a sunset over Tangier Sound.

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What the Chesapeake has become is emptier.

It has fewer crabs, oysters and watermen than it did 25 years ago, when government officials first pledged to restore its health.

And without all that, the bay region is sloughing off the culture that made it unique. Fewer women know the intricate signals of a blue crab's molt, that a red-sign crab is two days away from "busting" and becoming a valuable soft-shell. Fewer men know how to find oyster bars, underwater landmarks such as Snake Rip, Turkey Leg or Old Woman.

Fewer people know their neighbors in a place where neighbors used to be all you had.

"It used to be when you saw a boat go by, you'd say, 'There goes Cap'n Anthony. He's going out to fish his crabs.' 'There's A-Boy,' " headed to collect fish from a pound net, recalled Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Waterman's Association. "Now, it's like, 'Who in the hell's on that jet ski?' "

The water is still there, but The Bay -- the old, bountiful estuary -- is not. As the old industries have declined, they have been replaced by tourism, where the look of the water is all that matters. Or by trucking, or work in prisons, where the water doesn't matter at all.

This is the real cost of the cleanup's failure: People learning to live with broken promises.

These are three of their stories. One comes from an island still wedded to the old ways, another from a place trapped between the old bay and the new, and the third from a watermen's village that had to be killed in order to save it.

Deal Island, Md.

There was still a whiff of the bay -- salt and rotted shellfish -- coming off a pile of oyster shells outside the little building. Jeanne Webster Abbott was in the doorway one recent afternoon, holding a spare part to an old boat and sniffling so she didn't cry.

"I don't even know what this is," she said.

Then she saw what her daughter had found in the debris outside her late husband's abandoned crab shanty. It was a short piece of wood, notched to mark five inches. His crab-measuring stick, made specially after he had to become right-handed.


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