Foresters Get a Taste of the Bay on Smith Island
Early on the morning of October 26, 2014, a group of foresters from four of the Bay states—some who had never seen the Bay’s open water nor its most charismatic species, the blue crab—began their trek to Smith Island. Here a unique perspective on the Bay was waiting for them.
Some drove more than five hours to the meeting spot in Crisfield, Maryland also known as the “Seafood Capital of the World”. From this small city said to be built on oyster shells, the group was ferried the 12 miles across the Tangier Sound to Smith Island.
Partners of the Chesapeake Bay Program Forestry Workgroup leave Crisfield, Maryland for Smith Island. (Photo Credit: Will Parson)
If you don’t know Smith Island, you may know its most celebrated and popularized exports: top-quality seafood and the State dessert of Maryland, the Smith Island cake.
Smith is one of many islands that pepper the open water of the Chesapeake Bay, but the only one inhabited in Maryland. Colonized in the 17th Century, Smith Island became home to farmers from Cornwall and Doresetshire, England by way of Virginia. Farming may have been traded for working the water but the first colonists’ genes and traces of their unique accent live on.
One of these legacy waterman, Wes Bradshaw, captained the boat that took the group of 24 to Smith Island. Once across the Sound, Bradshaw navigated through the network of tidal marshes, almost 7,000 acres strong, that surround and protect Smith Island’s communities.
As the group neared its destination, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) environmental education center, the spirit of Smith Island was clear through the run down shanties and remnants of old docks that decorated the marshes’ edges.
Blue crab clutches a pipefish while foresters learn about the ecological value of underwater grass beds. (Photo Credit: Will Parson)
It is at this education center where a group of forester from across the watershed received their three-day/two-night crash-course on the Chesapeake Bay. CBF calls the trip one of their “residential study programs” and it usually hosts school groups to teach them about the Bay’s ecology and life as a waterman.
The foresters may seem slightly out of CBF’s wheelhouse here but their trip is nothing new. For the past decade, a new group of foresters has gone out to CBF’s multi-day field program to learn about the intersection between people and their Chesapeake.
This is possible because of the Forestry Workgroup and its partners, including the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the US Forest Service who organize and funded the excursion. The workgroup, formed in 1989, provides expert information on the role of forests in accomplishing Chesapeake Watershed Agreement goals and is made up of people from local, state and federal agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. It is the people from these aforementioned organizations and agencies that joined one another at Smith Island to gain a new perspective of the Chesapeake Bay.
It is this new perspective that is the true purpose of this trip, says Sally Claggett, US Forest Service program coordinator and the Forestry Workgroup coordinator:
“The trip makes field foresters more interested in doing work that benefits the Chesapeake Bay. This isn’t a retreat—it’s eye-opening. This trip makes the troubles with the palpable and real to people who live upstream.”
But how exactly does this trip make the Bay more “real” for those who may have never seen it, who know the Bay only as a distant concept?
“To experience how people depend on working the water has an effect on the group”, Claggett explained. And this, connecting to the lives and struggles of those that survive on the Bay, seems to be the spirit of the trip and what makes the experience stick.
To understand the waterman’s life, it is necessary to understand the complexities of Chesapeake Bay ecology. This is no easy task.
Foresters find tree species to identify on a once inhabited area of Smith Island that is now mainly marsh. (Photo Credit: Will Parson)
The CBF education program gave a snapshot of the Bay’s systems and its ecology by visiting key habitats: underwater grass beds, oyster reefs, and tidal marshes. This lent the opportunity to learn about important species and how the Bay has changed in tandem with the watershed’s changing landscape. The most broad of interactions—the watershed’s influence on the Bay—was very much made real by the analogy likening the Chesapeake watershed draining into the Bay to a football field draining into a quarter.
Foresters collect and shake out crab pots to sort out the “keepers” for the night’s dinner. (Photo Credit: Will Parson)
The education program also aimed to illustrate the waterman’s way of life by baiting, setting and harvesting crab pots for their own dinner. But perhaps the more meaningful experiences were interacting with the people of Smith Island.
Throughout the trip, Wes Bradshaw shared his view on Bay issues and gave insight into the state of the waterman’s community on Smith Island. His outlook was disheartening at times.
The average age of residents on the Island is near 60, compared to the state-wide average of 35. Bradshaw said this was because most of the young people were leaving Smith Island to pursue careers on the mainland.
Bradshaw recalled that it is of course every parents’ dream, for their children to be better off than they had it. But having it better often means leaving Smith Island.
The outlook for a career in the seafood industry can look bleak considering the decline in catches, the restrictions on when and where to harvest and the high cost of maintaining a business. For those who still work as watermen increasingly face challenges to sustaining a reasonable income and putting food on the table.
Captain Wes Bradshaw steering the Walter Ridder, a jet-driven boat near Smith Island. (Photo Credit: Will Parson)
The fear of not being able to feed a family is fairly common. Foresters on the trip recognize it in the watermen on Smith as well as the loggers they work with at home. This struck a chord for many on the trip.
It seems that making the human connection to Bay issues and seeing what the watershed so greatly influences made an impression on the foresters that visited Smith Island. This trip included many memorable experiences—first boat rides, first times being pinched by a blue crab and having it draw blood no less—and a suite of information that help make greater meaning of the forestry work throughout the Chesapeake watershed.