The Shore’s Watermen: Past, Present, and Future

Photo Credit: Rebecca Turner with Full Measure Oyster Company

Working the water is an ancient way of life on the Eastern Shore. It’s never been easy work, but that does not deter Eastern Shore watermen. Unfortunately, the local industry is facing tremendous pressure due to various external forces.

The Chesapeake Bay region is one of the top producing seafood hubs in Virginia and the Eastern Shore is certainly no exception. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see where you can buy local seafood during your next stay.

To get a picture of the unique culture and history of watermen on the Eastern Shore, we with Dr. Paul Ewell, founder of the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum and Research Center and professor at Virginia Wesleyan University.

Ewell grew up on the water fishing with his father along Hunting Creek and has always had a passion for watermen history. The museum, located in Historic Onancock School, aims to bring awareness to local watermen’s culture and history. Currently, the center is closed to the public.

Question and Answer

Photo Credit: Rebecca Turner with Full Measure Oyster Company

Q: What inspired you to open the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum and Research Center?
My entire family worked on the water and did so for many generations. As you know, the Eastern Shore of Virginia has an amazing history but I felt that much of this history was not being preserved and celebrated. The shore was built on two industries: fishing and farming.

I have always had an interest in doing research, especially maritime research related to the Chesapeake Bay. I really had no interest in opening a museum. For a few years my wife, Sandra Ewell, and my cousin, Wanda Guy, maintained a traveling display representing a sample of this wonderful maritime culture. A few years back someone suggested that we open up a small museum.

At first, I admit that I was not too keen on the idea, but then it became clear that opening the Museum and having a central location would help us in our cause to preserve this commercial fishing heritage. And we have discovered that this has been the case. Because we have a physical location, we have been able to bring awareness of this history to a much broader audience and we have been able to preserve and display many artifacts representing this heritage.
Q: How does your work with the Watermen’s Museum impact the community?
I think our work with the Museum impacts the community in several ways. First, our focus on the preservation of artifacts, both physical and virtual, helps us to create and maintain a record documenting this wonderful heritage.

Second, anyone who studies history knows that we study history not simply for the purpose of knowing facts, figures, and dates, but for learning from our past. Studying the maritime heritage helps us to understand how connected we are in this region to the water and how our culture has been shaped by our history.
Q: What is most important to you about preserving watermen’s history on Virginia’s Eastern Shore?
The most important thing to me concerning the preservation of this history is that it allows us to see, remember, and celebrate the lives of our ancestors. Our ancestors have made us who we are today and I believe it is so important to know them and therefore to understand where we come from.

Most of our commercial fishing ancestry was not rooted in wealth. History generally remembers and reports on individuals who were infamous, notorious, or highly influential. Most of our ancestors were none of these. Most were simple folks working hard trying to make a living off of the water. I have often felt that their stories needed to be told. That’s our primary purpose.
Q: What is one aspect of watermen’s culture that is unique to the Eastern Shore of Virginia?
I have studied commercial fishing cultures from many communities across North America as well as some in other parts of the world. Although the boats and the products are different, many of the people engaged in this industry have similarities.

If I had to pick one characteristic that makes watermen of the Eastern Shore different, I would have to say that it is their rugged individualism. While most commercial fishermen are very independently-minded, many fishing communities are quite close-knit and are able to work well with one another for the common good. Most Eastern shore watermen are far too individualistic for that!

Watermen in our area are among some of the most independent and individualistic people that I have ever seen. This has caused problems over the years. The running joke used to be anytime you have two or more watermen in a room, there will be a fight. I suppose that is what I like about our heritage. While this may pose problems, I and others associated with the industry continue to be very proud of our independent nature.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Turner with Full Measure Oyster Company

Q: How does the geography of Virginia’s Eastern Shore influence local watermen and local water culture businesses?
On the positive side, we are surrounded by water on three sides. Also, both sides of the shore are populated with many creeks providing access to the water’s bounty. Local watermen have access to the Chesapeake Bay as well as the Atlantic Ocean. They have access to seafood markets in Baltimore, Washington, Ocean City, and New York.
Q: What is the most important thing for people to understand about the Shore’s watermen’s culture?
I think the most important thing for people to understand about this heritage is that in many respects it is dying as the industry dies. Unfortunately, our country imports massive amounts of seafood from overseas, particularly from Asia.

Due to minimal regulations in these foreign countries, seafood coming into the United States tends to be much cheaper than local seafood. The general population doesn’t start to understand how this cheap imported seafood is impacting our local seafood industry, it won’t be long before we won’t have a local seafood industry. Our seafood industry is heavily regulated and can’t compete on price with foreign product.

I think a second very important thing to remember about our culture is gentrification. The seafood industry is just that, an industry. Many folks see commercial fishing boats, crab pots, and other industrial equipment contaminating their view of the water and disapprove.

People must understand that the seafood industry uses industrial equipment such as crab shedding tanks, boats, trucks, etc. It is imperative that the general population changes its attitude about the industrial nature of the commercial fishing process if the heritage is to survive.
Q: What do you think the future for local watermen looks like?
Honestly, I am not terribly optimistic. Sadly, young people are choosing not to become watermen or are unable to due to moratoriums on commercial fishing licenses. For example, to get a crabbing license one must buy it from another waterman. There is a limited amount of license available and so the ease of entry into the industry is just not there.

Combining our overly regulated seafood environment, gentrification by the general population, and moratoriums on licensing make me feel quite pessimistic about the future of the industry. I truly hope I have this all wrong. I believe that aquaculture is here to stay and I think you’ll see that segment of the industry grow. I am not so optimistic about the future of wild-caught.

Get Fresh, Local Seafood

Photo Credit: Devin Smith with Full Measure Oyster Company

Northampton County

Arielle Oyster Company LLC.
Cherrystone Aqua Farms
Dinkum’s Seafood
Gull Hummock Gourmet Market
HM Terry Co., Inc. (Wholesale)
Lambert Shellfish LLC.
Marker 6 Clam & Oyster Co.
Nottingham Seafood
Pearl Market
R&C Seafood
Ruby Salts Oyster Co.
Shooting Point Oyster Co.
The Great Machipongo Clam Shack
TW & Sons Seafood
Walker’s Seafood LLC. (Wholesale)

Accomack County

Eastern Shore Seafood LLC.
Edward’s Seafood
Full Measure Oyster Co. (Wholesale)
Gary Howard Seafood
Ricky’s Seafood & Produce
Seabest Seafood
Shore Seafood Inc.
Susan’s Seafood
Tangier Island Oyster Co.
Tom’s Cove Aquafarms

A special thank you to Full Measure Oyster Company for donating the photos in this blog. Thank you!

One thought on “The Shore’s Watermen: Past, Present, and Future

  1. Very informative!
    As you recall I’m a supporter of the NC Fisheries Assoc. Our shrimpers are under attack by a new organization that wants shrimping in internal waters to be stopped in NC.
    The dangerous lack of regulation for imported
    Seafood results in imported shrimp,catfish and pangasius and tilapia, supplied by countries that have open defecation into the water from which shrimp and fish are grown. No regulation allows for lower prices than local seafood products.
    I guess until more inspections are made, currently reported to be 2 percent, our local sources will suffer and producers will suffer until they are not able to meet expenses.


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