Being a waterman is a tough life. There is no way around that. These men and women face long, hard hours, brutal working conditions, and relatively low wages. For them, it is a way of life, often passed down from generation to generation. One thing to remember is that if a waterman does not go to work, he does not get paid. Because of these conditions, watermen are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet. 
The history of watermen stretches back into Maryland’s past. Since the initial settlement of Maryland, people have been living off the abundance of species we have here. The diversity of animals in the Chesapeake Bay is what makes our ecosystem special. The Bay is the nation’s largest estuary and provides habitats to 3,600 species. This is the perfect environment for watermen to work because there are so many species that can be harvested and sold. 
Ryan Manning and Kendall Manning, two watermen I interviewed and photographed, agreed that the job is not for the faint of heart. For Ryan, this job has been in the family for generations. He, his father, and his grandfather all work the same pound nets on Southeast Creek. He says it is not easy work, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He has grown up on the water and will continue to work on the water for the foreseeable future. He is part of a dying breed. While there are no historical figures for the number of watermen, we do have figures dating back to 1990. From 1990 to 2006, the number of people having jobs related to the crabbing industry has dropped by 40%. A significant decline that has put millions of dollars of the Maryland economy at risk.
Species Populations In the Bay
It is important to understand the health and abundance of the major species that are harvested, as watermen rely on these species to make their livings. These numbers have all come from the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) website and Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) reports. 
The Atlantic Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus) is an iconic Chesapeake Bay species. From 1998 to 2006, the population of crabs living within the bay has shrunk by 40%, and from 2016-2017, the number of crabs harvested dropped 10%. CBF blames poor water quality and overfishing as the primary cause of these drops. The CBP suggests protecting underwater grasses to help protect the Blue Crabs.
An engineering species, Eastern Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) play an important role in the health of the Bay. As of late 2018, the current number of market sized oysters is less than 10% of what was harvested annually before 1900. From 1999 to 2018, the total number of oysters in the bay has dropped by over 50%. A 2018 CBF assessment also provided information saying that harvesting is currently beyond sustainable limits. CBP says diseases, historical overharvesting, and habitat loss are responsible for these drops. With the discovery of MSX and Dermo (two diseases currently ravaging oyster populations), oyster recovery has been very challenging because over 80% of a single year’s oysters will die from the disease in highly affected areas. CBP says that by managing the annual oyster harvest, we may begin to see a rebound in oyster populations soon.
The Decline of People Working the Bay
With the drop of species populations within the bay, watermen have been thrust into a battle between the regulators and the history and traditions of their families. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) places strict restrictions on how watermen can harvest species and when they can harvest them. With new technology, watermen can catch more animals quicker, but with the declining populations, people fear they will stress the system too much and cause extinction. Maryland’s response to this is to mandate watermen to take certain days off during seasons. For example, during the oyster season, watermen are required to take one day off a week and not work. If a waterman does not work, he does not get paid, so this is a big deal with watermen, especially because DNR has talked about mandating them to take a second day off. 
Another issue that may be causing the decline of men and women working the bay is that it is very expensive to start out as a new business. Unless a current waterman is passing on his business, it is very hard to get started from scratch. Since all waterman are self-employed, they must get a boat, get all of the gear required, and then obtain a commercial fishing license. In recent years, these licenses have gotten very expensive, and currently, the state of Maryland is no longer issuing new ones. This makes it very competitive to get started, and when a license goes up for auction, the price is pushed too high for a new businessman to get started. Young people are seeing that it is too hard to get started in the business, so they are leaving the waterman communities in search of work elsewhere. 
Ryan Manning has said that he has seen the drop in people working the water. He believes that with the strict regulations on the watermen, it is no longer as profitable as it used to be. This means that it is not enticing for new people to enter the industry, and future generations may not be able to support their families on the salary. Teenagers who would inherit their family business would rather go into a different industry in the hopes of earning a better living for their families. This ends the cycle of familial watermen and is putting the industry at risk of extinction.
Now, hope is not lost for Maryland’s watermen. There are many simple actions local residents can take to help. The main and most efficient way is to buy local seafood. Lots of chain grocery stores buy seafood from overseas. By buying local seafood you give money directly to the watermen, and keep the money within the community. This will not cost you any more money than buying fish at the big grocery stores but will be helping the industry get back on its feet again. One other action you can take is to help raise awareness of the issue. By informing local policymakers of the issues watermen face, they will hopefully keep that information in mind when they vote on policy influencing watermen. That is why I am here tonight, to raise awareness of the issue. I have invited you, as well as our local politicians, here tonight to learn about this issue as a way to bring change. Just by remembering what you have learned here tonight will help the watermen. By giving them representation, they will once again return to Maryland the massive industry it once was.
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