The watermen -- an old word, said to be of English origin, that has survived to this day on and around the Chesapeake Bay -- would be called commercial fishermen elsewhere; on the bay, they are watermen.

They are almost as much an endangered species as some of the shellfish and finfish they harvest from the bay and its tributaries. For generations, they have crabbed in the summer, oystered in the winter, and worked on their boats in between.

The technology has changed a little but not much, and conservation laws were passed to preserve the resources, but to little avail. Dredging for oysters is allowed, but only on certain days can the dredge boats be motorized. On other days, watermen are allowed to dredge only under sail. Crabbers use rectangular metal traps, known as "crab pots," but some will catch crabs the old way, "trotlining" on the rivers, using long lines strategically baited, usually with eel or chicken necks. "Chicken neckers," these river watermen have come to be called.

Many of the old oystering and crab towns around the bay are yielding to accelerating change, condos and yachts replacing crab shanties and oyster-shucking houses. At Kent Narrows, shuckers' shacks have been razed and the decidedly upscale Oyster Cove town houses now attract Washington and Annapolis commuters. In towns such as St. Michaels and Oxford, which were well-known boat-building centers, watermen have to fight for the few remaining public slips.

In other port towns, more and more watermen are looking landward for steady employment. It's hard times on the water, they say, hardly worth the effort.

But 12,000 or so keep at it, three-fourths of them from Maryland. From the mouth of the James River to the waters above the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, they hang on. The watermen's language conveys a strong sense of independence and self-reliance, a grim determination, perhaps, and a stubborn optimism in the face of depressing statistics.

"It's a natural process with the oyster situation," explains Joe Daniels, of Deal Island. "I been on the water but 15, 18 years, and I've seen it {decline and come back} twice since I been doing it."

Stephen Horner, another Deal Island waterman, said, "I think they're trying to regulate us out of business. It ain't what we catch. It's the chemicals. It's growth, the people around the cities. But the first {thing} they want to do is put a limit on you, like with the rockfish. At the turn of the century, there wasn't no cull law {restricting the catch to hard-shell crabs measuring at least five inches}. You could sell whatever. One sponge {pregnant} crab will produce 1 to 3 million crabs, and I won't catch one-half million all year."

Deal Island -- first named Devil's Island by survivors of a 17th-century shipwreck -- is a large patch of marsh and fast land 15 miles east of the Somerset County seat of Princess Anne. The road to Deal cuts through miles of wetlands.

The island itself is connected to the mainland by an arching two-lane bridge. Deal is known for its abundant mosquitoes and for the bombing and shelling of nearby Bloodsworth Island, which the military has used for target practice since 1942. The noise rattles and has sometimes shattered windows. Otherwise, Deal Island is a quiet place.

The population of several hundred, clustered at opposite ends of the island in the two small settlements of Deal Island and Wenona, remains largely indigenous. There are, to be sure, a few newcomers, mostly of retirement age, but this is no Oxford or St. Michaels -- yet. Thanks probably to the mosquitoes, the shelling, and the island's remote location on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore, housing is still cheap, and gentrification seems a long way off.

Deal's remoteness is reflected in the lilting accents of its inhabitants, not quite so "British" as the Smith Islanders but distinctive nonetheless. Quaint accents can fool you, however. Backyard satellite dishes here hint at a certain worldliness; so does the wry humor reflected in a cap sold by Arby's General Store in Wenona: "Not the end of the world, but you can see it from here . . . . "

Arby's ("A Waterman's Retreat," the sign says) is where the watermen gather for coffee and chatter before dawn and a day's work. The talk is about the weather and the catch, or lack of it. At 5:30, on a morning in late September, 17 men were starting their day at Arby's. It is almost the oyster season, according to the calendar at least, but the subject of the day is crabbing and the alternatives to it.

A dozen or so Deal Island watermen had given up on the bay the previous winter to work at a new state prison near Princess Anne. "A few more got applications in because the way the oysters are now, you're lucky to make the grocery bill," one man says.

It was the first full-time job for most, with what they consider astounding benefits -- such as health insurance and paid vacations. "I never dreamed I'd do anything other than work on the water all my life," says Gary Holland, a prison guard with "a check coming in every week, whether I work or not, even when I'm sick or on my days off."

He says he is pulling down $18,000 a year. "It isn't like being your own boss," but it is what he needs to support his family of six. Two of his three sons "wouldn't mind going on the water, but I tell them that's the last resort. I'd rather they do that as a hobby in their spare time and get something up the road" that leads from Deal Island east to Princes Anne and civilization.

But for others, including 35-year-old Loudy Horner, trading the water for prison work remains a most distasteful alternative. "My little children will go hungry before I go there," says Horner, who runs a soft-shell shedding operation with his brother Dave.

The Horner family has almost always made its living from the bay. "My grandfathers on both sides, and, I guess their father did," says another brother, Stephen Horner, whose four years away from Deal had been spent in the Navy.

Ed Horner is the only brother who has worked on land; he became a state trooper. "I was the only one who worked for the government. I was the bastard child of the family." Even when he was a trooper, he would load crabs from the family business in his cruiser and drop them off on his rounds. Now, at age 41, he is retired from the force and operating the Waterman's Seafood Restaurant near Ocean City.

Here as elsewhere on the Chesapeake, watermen ply the water in "workboats," a term peculiar to the bay and used to describe a low-slung, shallow-draft vessel with a small forward pilot house. Stephen Horner uses a 35-foot workboat powered by a six-cylinder automobile engine. The boat is owned by brother Ed, but otherwise he works for himself in the waters off Deal Island.

At a time when men and women are rocketing into the stratosphere on space shuttles, Horner and helper Jackie Carew carry on an age-old tradition: harvesting crabs from the shallow bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Strong early-morning winds delay their departure from the snug harbor of Wenona, but by 7 a.m. they are working in seven or eight feet of water off South Marsh Island, five miles from Deal. Six days a week Horner fishes his crab pots.

The work is tedious, unchanging. Horner hauls the pots on board his boat, where Carew empties, baits, and returns them to the water. Carew also culls the crabs, tossing them into separate bushel baskets for "jimmies" (males), "socks" (females), and "peelers," or those about to moult and become soft-shell crabs.

For purely sexist reasons, the jimmies are regarded as the most desirable, destined to be steamed with Old Bay seasoning for dissecting with wooden mallet and knife at crab houses throughout the Chesapeake region. The sooks will be picked apart by crab-pickers for packing and selling in supermarkets. The peelers will make an intermediate stop at local soft-shell shedding shanties. After moulting, they will be shipped to big-city restaurants, to be cooked and eaten in their entirety, claws and all.

Back on Tangier Sound, the early October sky is clouding over. By 9:45 a.m., three bushel baskets are filled with crabs. By 10:40, Horner's is the only workboat in sight. An hour later, there are still 80 pots left to pull. The work day, with only 20-minute breaks, is over by 1 p.m.

"By Saturday morning, it gets tiresome," Horner says. "You're glad to see a Sunday . . . . You can't take it too serious, you'll get upset."

This day's catch -- from 375 pots -- consists of nine bushels of males, five of females, and 216 peelers. The catch has a wholesale value of $360, less expenses.

It hardly seems enough to keep a man on the water. But to men like Horner, there is much more to it:

"Really, I don't know anything else. I like the independence more than anything else. Working around people I'm not used to . . . . I just like to be out on the water by myself. It's quiet, and you can enjoy what God gave you."

Horner speaks movingly of sunrises and waterspouts, funnel clouds "like fingers reaching down. I saw five in an hour's time. They stayed in the same place . . . . You can't put a price on it, really."

This article was adapted from "Chesapeake Country" by Eugene L. Meyer, with photographs by Lucian Niemeyer, published last month by Abbeville Press Inc., New York.