Following Those Who Follow the Water
By contrast, scientists and professional environmentalists often "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with these statements. From the watermen and their wives in the room there are nods or shaking heads as Paolisso reports his findings. With these kinds of questions and answers, Paolisso can begin to outline the key beliefs of watermen's view of the natural world - and spotlight the key reasons watermen and scientists seldom communicate well.
The survey, the anthropologists report, also reveals some common ground. For example, both the watermen and the environmental professionals agreed that working watermen's knowledge of the Bay is important for sound management, and both groups agreed that it is important for watermen and scientists to share their knowledge about the blue crab.
After Paolisso's presentation, a silence falls over the empty paper plates and plastic tablecloths. The watermen and their wives have listened attentively, and appear genuinely interested in the results, but some seem puzzled. Roy Ford says he is "surprised" that scientists don't understand the role of God and Nature and unpredictability in the cycles of blue crabs. "They're thinking inside the box," he says.
Ford argues that if scientists got out on the water more - if they caught crabs in pots, for example - they would see things first hand. He points to the impact of predators like croakers that have turned up in great numbers during the past several years and are found inside crab pots.
Waterman Grant Corbin - who made a memorable appearance in William Warner's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Beautiful Swimmers - adds that many scientists may not have seen what he's seen following the harsh winter of 2002. According to Corbin, 50 to 70 percent of crabs in less than 10 feet of water died. Speaking of recent regulations meant to protect the spawning stock, Corbin says that "we saved the crabs just to have them die."
As the watermen speak, they reaffirm what Paolisso has heard in countless interviews: that in the end Nature, and not man, will determine how many crabs - or fish or shellfish - will be in the Bay. Paolisso tells the group that scientists understand that natural cycles do influence crab abundance, but that scientific models attempt to offer predications on what Nature is going to provide.
Some watermen shake their heads, but David Horseman, who has participated in the watermen-scientists dialogues organized by Paolisso, speaks up. "It's where scientists come from," he says. "They're drilled on black and white evidence. Faith is a bad word for them. We rely on faith. This is God's Nature. They [the scientists] come from a different world. But I see a lot of common ground."
Horseman, who has listened to scientists speak about their work during the structured dialogues, tells the group that one thing he has learned is that the scientists are "dedicated."
"They are trying to do a good job just like we are," he says.
Paolisso tells the group that everyone he's talked to and worked with wants to protect the blue crab and the watermen who catch them.
A waterman notes that "we [the watermen and environmental professionals] have common goals but different methods."
Paolisso nods. This is, in part, what he has hoped for - that while not necessarily agreeing with each other the different groups begin to understand that they each are "dedicated" in their own way, that though they have different vantage points, they do in fact have central goals in common.
Researchers who have participated in the dialogues also say that they have learned from these discussions. Jacques van Montfrans and Rom Lipcius, both of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, see a lack of opportunity for researchers, watermen and other stakeholders to come together to share their knowledge and opinions about the blue crab. "It's too bad that the states [Virginia and Maryland] haven't continued to fund the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee," says van Montfrans. Researcher Tom Miller from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science agrees, saying, "It's a shame. A golden opportunity lost."
Miller goes on to say, "I think these [dialogues] have been incredibly useful." Miller, who was instrumental in analyzing current efforts to limit fishing pressure on the Bay's crab stock, says he feels that some of the watermen have begun to see that "decisions are not based on smoke and mirrors" but on "reasonable judgments."
Within the responses of the researchers lies evidence of another set of core beliefs. Scientists, whatever their religious affiliation, also have a faith, as Albert Einstein said, in the divine order of things, a faith that careful scrutiny and an open mind will lead to revelations of elemental truth.
It is this belief in the scientific process - a conviction that at the end of honest inquiry the truth will out - that propels science and scientists forward into the uncertain worlds of physics, chemistry and biology. In a sense, the scientist lives with the uncertainty of unanticipated results, just as the waterman lives with the natural world's uncertain seasons.
There lies, it seems, a kind of faith at either end of the bridge, and anthropologists like Paolisso are trying to draw conceptual maps to help us understand the terrain of those very different landscapes.
Crossing the Bridge
As the summer of 2003 drew to a close, the watermen of Chance, Deal Island and Wenona broke with the normal rhythms of September. They pulled their pots and moved their workboats far up river, away from the open waters of the Bay. Hurricane Isabel had formed in the Atlantic, and meteorologists picked the region around North Carolina's outer banks, just south of the Bay's mouth, for landfall.
Building to the strength of a category 5, Isabel threatened the kind of devastation brought by Hugo in South Carolina in 1989, or by Andrew in Florida in 1992. But luck was largely with watermen and others along the Atlantic seaboard - Isabel dropped from a category 5 to 4 to 3 to 2. Even so, its storm surge and strong easterly winds (in the storm's most dangerous northeast quadrant) brought rising waters well up the Bay, along with gusts strong enough to knock down trees and power lines, leaving some without power for days, or even weeks.
All up and down the Chesapeake Isabel's high winds and a record-breaking surge flooded streets and homes. At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, buildings were flooded, piers and hatchery tanks destroyed. In Baltimore and Annapolis roads flooded and shops filled, leaving merchandise ruined. Homes along so many Bay rivers and coves saw tidal waters rise and rise until waves washed into living rooms and bedrooms. On Deal Island, wind and water took away crab shanties and damaged homes and docks. "Some people [in the Deal Island area] had 17 inches of water in their house," says Horseman.
Then in a somber tone he says, "It was the worst on Hooper Island. They lost the road. Houses flooded. We heard picking houses were destroyed." He also heard that Tangier Island, about twenty miles south across the Virginia line, was hard hit, with power lines down and crab shanties in splinters.
But in Chance, David Horseman was lucky.
"I thought my shanty would be the first to go," he says - but it wasn't. With his shanty intact, his boat safely moved far up the Wicomico River to Salisbury and his home on higher ground than some, Horseman and his family came through fine. "We never even lost electricity," he says. There is in his voice a hint of disbelief as he says, "I never had no problem at all."
He says he hates to talk about his good fortune when so many others lost shanties, boats, homes. But for Horseman all in all this was a good year. The supply of soft crabs was "steady" and the price stayed high. "The price is so good now. With soft crabs the price is always good. We've been getting a couple dollars for a jumbo [soft shell]," he says. "And you can keep 'em [frozen]," he adds, selling them well into winter. They're "just like gold."
Though crabbing has taken all his time during the summer, this fall Horseman will travel that long road between Chance and the Bay's western shore, heading in the opposite direction. He will travel to College Park, to talk to Paolisso's class at the University of Maryland. "Most people regard watermen as old dummies that can only catch crabs. But inviting me up to speak at a college, it's an honor," Horseman says. "It's a real honor."
He has also traded workplaces with some scientists. Researcher Tuck Hines came down to Chance just before the spring peeler run, looking to catch certain sizes of crabs. Horseman went out with him and they fished the banks, talked about soft crabs. Horseman also visited Hines's laboratory, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, to learn about the research underway there.
Have these dialogues and workplace exchanges - what Paolisso calls a collaborative learning project - helped to build bridges? "Absolutely," Horseman says. "There is absolutely a better connection with the scientists. First we all stood our ground. Now there is mutual respect."
"I don't believe everything he [Hines] says, and I know he doesn't believe everything I say. But we have mutual respect."
You can tell, says Horseman, by the different way the watermen and the scientists in this group now talk to each other. When he was explaining some of his observations about blue crabs, the scientists seemed very interested. When Hines was explaining the crab's migration and life cycle, he in turn found this very interesting. "He was telling me new stuff," Horseman says. "It's been very positive."
There have been changes among managers as well. At the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, programs have begun to engage watermen in recording data based on crab catches. The DNR has also launched a new Blue Crab Task Force to gather greater input into the management of the fishery, where they will no doubt face the same challenge of linking watermen's knowledge with that of scientists and technical experts.
For Paolisso, such dialogues among stakeholders have to continue, no matter what the venue. "We have to keep these conversations going," he says. "We have to get the different parties to see beyond their varying positions to their common interests."
Says Ann Swanson, "Michael Paolisso's work gave us another avenue for learning about their [the watermen's] concerns, and at a much deeper level."
For Horseman, traveling the long and challenging road toward mutual understanding has been worth it. "Even if it [Paolisso's project] doesn't go any further, it's still positive," he says. "Absolutely what we need - he's not pulling for either side, but he's showing everybody's side. Not only the watermen and the scientists but the DNR, the environmentalists, everybody.
"Nobody else could have done it," Horseman says. "If the DNR or the scientists did it, well, we'd of had our doubts. The University of Maryland did it. If you'd asked me, I didn't think it could be done."
"It's just an open-minded thing," concludes Horseman. "You don't have to think about it. You feel it."
For More Information
The Lobster Gangs of Maine. 1988. James M. Acheson. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England.
Oyster Wars and the Public Trust. 1998. Bonnie J. McKay. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
The Estuary's Gift: an Atlantic Coast Cultural Biography. 1999. David C. Griffith. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake. 1997. Tom Horton. New York: Vintage Books.
Tourism and Culture: An Applied Perspective. 1997. Chambers, Erve, (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stalking the American Lobster. 2002. Trevor Corson. Atlantic Monthly, April 2002. Pages 61-81.
Blue Crabs and Controversy on the Chesapeake Bay: A Cultural Model for Understanding Watermen's Reasoning about Blue Crab Management. 2002. Paolisso, Michael Human Organization 61(3): 226-239.
Culture and Resource Management on the Chesapeake Bay. Michael Paolisso, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland - www.bsos.umd.edu/anth/chesapeake/home.htm
Maryland Watermen's Association - www.marylandwatermen.com
Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Committee - skipjack.net/le_shore/heritage/
Chesapeake Bay History and Culture, Maryland Sea Grant - www.mdsg.umd.edu/CB/history.html
Selected Bibliography of Bay Literature, Maryland Sea Grant - www.mdsg.umd.edu/CB/literature.html
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This page was last modified May 11, 2011