Watermen of the Chesapeake

40th Anniversary  •  Culture & Identity  •  Folklife

Alvin Stoops Jr., Saxis Island, VA
Alvin Stoops Jr., Saxis Island, VA

By David Bearinger

Hobie Gibbs, Hampton, VA

Hobie Gibbs learned net mending from his father. Freddie Wheatley’s family has been working the waters off Tangier Island for four generations. Gregory Lee went to sea with his dad, a trawler captain, when he was six years old. Alvin Stoops Jr. has dredged clams from Cape Charles to New Jersey. Carol Hogge harvests oysters out of Deep Creek Wharf in Newport News, working alongside her husband on a boat named for her. Junius Barnes Jr. handles seafood at a packinghouse in Hampton with his father and brother, shipping to places like Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.

These men and women and hundreds of others like them are part of a long line of Virginians who have drawn, and still draw, their livelihoods from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. They are part of a story that reaches back to the earliest days of the Virginia colony and beyond—at least 15,000 years beyond, and probably longer.

Today, Virginia’s watermen are also living inside a perfect storm of market forces, politics, environmental crisis, and cultural change: a time of deep uncertainty about the bay’s future and their own.

In 2008, the photographer Glen McClure set out to create an intimate, composite portrait of the watermen and women of the Chesapeake. He visited nineteen bay communities, most of them in Virginia, photographing scores of working watermen in many sectors of Virginia’s seafood industry.

In June, 2010, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) awarded a grant to the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, to support an exhibit based on McClure’s photographs. The exhibit and an accompanying book publication were titled Endangered Species: Watermen of the Chesapeake.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America: 64,000 square miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, and open waters spread over six states with more than 3,600 native species of plants, birds, fish, and animals. It’s also a region of intense human activity—farming, shipping, manufacturing, sprawling land development, and a rapidly growing human population.

When John Smith first explored the Bay in 1608, he described an abundance he and his companions had never before witnessed: “… neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish, had any of us seene in any place so swimming in the water …” And for centuries thereafter, the bounty of the Chesapeake seemed inexhaustible.

The harvests—of rockfish, flounder, clams, scallops, blue crabs, and the iconic Chesapeake Bay oyster—sustained families and bay communities generation after generation. They also fed Virginia and the nation. In the 1960s, one third of the oysters consumed in the United States came from the Chesapeake Bay. But already, there were signs that the bay was in trouble.

Gregory Lee
Gregory Lee, Hampton, VA

Over the past fifty years, the bay’s decline has been steep. Pollution from farms and cities, waves of new development, overharvesting, disease, and other factors, including climate change and sea-level rise, have diminished the bay’s health and placed enormous pressure on its resources.

As a result, Virginia’s watermen have been forced to drink a bitter cocktail of declining fin and shellfish stocks, increasing state and federal regulation, strict quotas, and low market prices—partly as a consequence of globalization—that is threatening a web of livelihood and tradition that defines the Chesapeake Bay region.

Some watermen whose families have worked on the bay for generations are getting out of the business altogether; others are taking jobs on the mainland and working the water part-time. Those who remain are hanging on as best they can. Fewer and fewer young people are choosing the hard work, long hours, and steady diet of uncertainty that come with life on the water.

But there’s another side to the story too. It’s the side that keeps the men and women in McClure’s photographs, and many others like them, coming back to the water and to the wharves and packing houses year after year, storm or no storm.

Some say it’s the independence that comes from self-reliance. Some say it’s the pull of following a way of life that connects the present to the past. Some say it’s the beauty of a sunrise or a rainsquall moving across the water, or an overflowing crab-pot. Some can’t explain the reasons and wouldn’t bother to try: it’s just what they know.

The story of the Chesapeake Bay watermen is as complex as the ecosystem of the bay itself. It’s not just one story; it’s a web of stories. McClure’s portraits of Virginia’s watermen reflect this complexity. There’s nothing nostalgic or romanticized about the life—or the lives—pictured in these photographs. But they do convey a deep respect: for the work they depict and the dignity and individuality of those who do it.

In the book’s preface, McClure says it this way: “I try to be straightforward, honest, and observant, looking for details that might offer insight about the subject, things that perhaps most folks would not notice.”

Thanks to his work and to the Mariners’ Museum, which was instrumental in bringing this work to a broad public audience, we can all see the faces of this essential Virginia story: a story that reaches far back into our collective history and is still unfolding before our eyes.

All photographs by Glen McClure (www.glenmcclure.com).  Courtesy of Glen McClure.  All rights reserved.

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VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.