- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

CRISFIELD, Md. — ll of the men in Guy Marshall’s family were captains, but he has no desire to carry on the tradition. As first mate on the Beth Anne, a crabbing boat that docks in Crisfield, he watches boat owners struggle to stay afloat.

“I could go work for myself, but then I’d have to deal with all the bills,” he said. “I work as a mate, and I don’t have to worry about nothing. I just make my salary and go home.” While Mr. Marshall counts his money, others are calculating their losses.

Jay Carmen of Crisfield crabs three to five times a week, and sometimes it doesn’t pay to leave shore because crabbers are still being offered less-than-fair prices at the docks, he said.

“A lot of watermen are looking for jobs on land and selling their equipment,” he said. For years, he and his peers have been hoping the market would improve, but it hasn’t.

“We’re not making any money,” Mr. Carmen said. “These are 20-year-old prices [commercial buyers are] giving us.”

Binky Dize, a buyer for S.T. Horner and Sons Inc. of Crisfield, sympathizes with the watermen, claiming the business has been steadily going downhill.

“The old days used to be you could make a living off the water, but not anymore,” he said. “Every day we hear that the prices should be higher. When I was a waterman I felt the same way.”

But what irritates watermen more than minimal profit is that the middlemen who purchase their crabs for “next to nothing,” are selling them for much more.

Mr. Marshall said the same bushel of crabs that his captain is paid $35 dollars for is sold at retail for $100 or more.

“That feels like a slap in the face to me,” he said. “They try to take them from us as cheap as they can get them, but on the city end, they still have to pay high prices.”

Business typically takes a turn for the worse after Labor Day when tourism season ends and the demand for hard crabs diminishes, Mr. Carmen said.

Part of the trouble for local watermen comes from commercial buyers who buy their product from overseas, Mr. Dize said.

“They’re buying them from Jersey all the way to Timbuktu,” he said, adding that the unpredictable market sometimes leads buyers to look for the product elsewhere. “Nobody can figure the crab out. We know they bite and they move. Other than that, we don’t know nothing.”

But Mr. Carmen said the buyers, who should be faithful to the watermen who work on the Bay daily, are forcing some watermen to dock their boats for good.

“They really don’t care about the local watermen,” he said. “We either accept it or do without. That’s what it comes down to.”

But facing a declining market, watermen have tried several tactics to raise prices — some even called a strike. But that didn’t work, Mr. Marshall said, as only a few stuck to their guns.

“If everybody would have stayed in, the market would have straightened out, but you just can’t get watermen to stick together,” he said.

“The buyers figured, ‘Why should I pay high prices when they’re throwing crabs at our feet?’”

But despite the chatter among crabbers, Mr. Dize said his employer and other buyers are paying adequate prices.

“They’re not getting ripped off,” he said. “We try to treat them as fair as possible.”

Mr. Dize, now 71, has spent his life between Smith Island and Crisfield. In his younger days, crabbing was a way of life that was passed from generation to generation. But that has changed and so has life on the water, he said.

“It’s a dying industry,” he said. “There are less watermen period.”

Mr. Carmen attributes that to low wages.

“The watermen that have families, mortgages and car payments are not going to be able to make it,” he said.

Years ago, when buyers wouldn’t pay enough for hard crabs, watermen would peddle their product at crab-picking houses. But those days are long gone.

“Not everyone likes to pick them, so you need to sell the meat,” Mr. Marshall said. “Someone’s got to pick them, and if you ain’t got nobody, then you’re not gonna move much of them.”

While they attempt to pay bills and stay above water, the fear of drowning enters the minds of many watermen whenever they gas up or buy new equipment.

“The market has gone in the tank the last two or three years, and I really hope it turns around,” Mr. Carmen said. “This is everyone’s heritage around here, and it’s really sad to see it die.”

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