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Maryland's Ancient Mariners Strive to Keep Traditions Afloat

When the crew of the skipjack Kathryn called Capt. Russell Dives to see about oystering this year, he didn't know what to tell them.

After four dismal seasons of trying to eke out a living by culling oysters, the captain may opt to sit this one out - ending a streak that stretches back four generations.

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Mr. Dives isn't the only one unsure of his future. Confronted by a tough economy and an ever-changing Chesapeake Bay, the fishing culture known as the Maryland watermen to all outside appearances seems poised for extinction.

But the watermen have spent decades teetering on the edge and have learned to adapt to increasingly tough times. Most of them expect to find a way to continue their tradition.

Living on the fringe of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, the watermen are an insular people with a speech pattern that can be traced back to the 1600s, when the area was settled. They struggle year 'round to work the Chesapeake Bay - remote areas of the Eastern Shore and small bay towns in southern Maryland - switching from oysters in the winter to crabs in the summer.

Some 10,000 strong, the watermen pride themselves for being self-sufficient and view the government as meddlesome. In some remote creek-side communities, they'll even squint suspiciously at strangers coming across their bridge as if they were carpetbaggers arriving with a brand new hustle.

While writers tend to celebrate their "Old Man and the Sea" existence, the watermen rarely wax poetic about culling oysters in the bitter cold water. "I put it next to coal mining," Dives says. "The only thing is you don't have to go down a hole, but you got to go out in a dangerous, icy boat, and you have to worry about the wind toppling you over."

The watermen's lifestyle has been under siege since the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952 and released the flow of beach traffic crossing the barren shore. Over the decades, farmland that buffered the waterfront communities has sprung housing developments. Small harbor towns like Oxford and St. Michaels and Rock Hall now cater to the yachting crowd.

As a skipjack captain of the last commercial sailing fleet in the country, Dives is on the fragile tip of the precarious watermen culture. Just before the turn of the century, skipjacks numbered in the hundreds when Chesapeake Bay was the No. 1 oyster producer in the world, peaking at 15 million bushels in 1885. Today the fleet has dwindled to 15.

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Oyster harvests plummeted from 1.6 million in the 1985-86 season to 80,000 bushels in 1993-94, partly due to a parasite problem.

Scientists have been scurrying to develop a disease-resistant oyster that could be raised in artificial conditions, known as aquaculture. But to the watermen, that process is blasphemy. "What we don't want to happen is speculators using the Chesapeake Bay as a land-grab operation," says Larry Simns, who has been president of the Maryland Watermen's Association since 1973. "It makes us look like we're opposed to it, but we're not. The one thing we've told everyone, if aquaculture worked, watermen would be doing it."

Bill Goldsborough, chief scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says the watermen may be at a low point, but they should not be written off. He says the state has a better grasp on fishery management. As proof, he points to the rockfish that have come back strong after a five-year moratorium was enforced because of over-harvesting.

"If [the watermen] can survive until now, they can survive in the future," Mr. Goldsborough says.

SOME of the older skipjack captains are turning to charters and other fishing-industry sidelines to raise money. But the economic temptation for younger ones to leave is prevalent.

Dives, for example, has started a seafood shipping business that transports crabs from North Carolina to New York when he can't find them locally. But one of Dives's sons doesn't plan to stay in the business; he is studying to be a lawyer.

And teenager Billy Murphy, from the watermen's community of Tilghman Island, boasts that he may be the only one in his school that has his own crab boat. Although he plans to follow the water, he also intends to go to diesel mechanics school, just in case.

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