Crabbing on Tangier Island

This post is about a month overdue. To see more pictures from our stay on Tangier see the October 23rd post, Tangier Island, VA.

Milton Parks, owner of the only transient marina on tiny Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, is an institution on the island. Like nearly all of the other male residents he spent his entire career fishing for blue crabs in the Bay. In his more than six decades on the water Milton has watched as the industry and island itself slowly diminish.

Tangier has been eroding steadily with each major storm long before sea level rise was recognized as a threat. Now that storms are larger and the sea level is rising faster, the island may be losing up to 9 acres a year. This map title "The Shrinking Island" at the island's tiny historical center shows the loss of land between 1866 and 2001.

The crabbing industry has waned along with the island's acreage. Monitoring and regulating crab populations is controversial because they are one of the most popular species of shellfish caught both commercially and recreationally on the Eastern seaboard. According to NOAA, "During the last decade, blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay reached some of their lowest numbers ever due to overexploitation and habitat degradation." Tighter restrictions on fishing licenses and length of the blue crab season were applied in response, though Milton and his fellow watermen dispute the scarcity of crabs.

Rockfish or striped bass are another popular species fished in Chesapeake Bay and they consume enormous amounts of juvenile blue crabs as part of their diet. According to Milton, the fishermen pursuing rockfish are more often wealthy sport fisherman than commercial fisherman making a living like the watermen of Tangier. The waterman see new regulations as favoring rockfish survival over that of blue crab and blame wealthy mainlanders who wield more political influence. 

It's hard to verify if Milton's theory is correct, but it's not difficult at all to imagine an uninhabited Tangier Island in just a few decades. Whether the economics of subsistence fishing, the increasing erosion from storms and tides, or the rise in sea level, the days of this beautiful and culturally unique place are very likely numbered.