WESTOVER, Md.-Everybody knows that the Chesapeake Bay’s watermen are vanishing. This is where some of them went.
At Eastern Correctional Institution, a state prison here on the Eastern Shore, the water is so close that gulls sometimes fly in and waddle around the yard. But the birds aren’t the only bay creatures here. At least 30 of the prison’s correctional officers used to have full-time jobs in the region’s seafood industry.
They were brought to the prison by an outgoing demographic tide around the Chesapeake: a diaspora of watermen and their relatives, dispersed to new jobs by failing shellfish harvests.
Some have chosen trucks, tugboats or taxis. And some have chosen this job, gaining steady pay by immersing themselves in a sometimes violent, vulgar world.
One of them is Janice Marshall, 62, a waterman’s wife from Smith Island. Her previous jobs include picking the meat out of cooked blue crabs. Now, three generations of her family work behind razor wire.
“This time of the day, I’d probably be fishing up my crabs, if I had any — if I was lucky enough to have any — and I’d be getting ready to start supper,” Marshall said as she started one recent evening shift at the jail. “Fishing up” means plucking crabs in mid-molt out of a holding tank, before their soft shells harden.
“Whoever thought, in your lifetime, you’d be here working?” Marshall said.
Marshall had spent almost her entire life on Smith Island, a spot of marshy ground, slowly sinking, 12 miles out in the bay. She founded a crab-picking cooperative there. She sang parodies at the watermen’s association fundraiser: “To All the Crabs I’ve Caught Before” and “Hey, We Got Crabs, Babe.”
Her new job is not so far from the bay: The Manokin River inlet, a crooked finger of the Chesapeake, is only about a mile from the prison.
But this is a world apart from home.
“You know, the windowsills is supposed to be clean,” Marshall said, pointing to clutter in one inmate’s cell. She was patrolling on her own — at 5 feet 4 inches tall and with a small container of pepper spray — in a wing where 59 male inmates roam freely.
“I’ll remember that,” the inmate said. His domino game went on.
Marshall took this job for the pay and the benefits and lives most of the year in Crisfield. Her husband, Bobby, a waterman, needed health insurance, and she couldn’t get that picking crabmeat.
In the past two decades, families have faced similar choices all over the Chesapeake. First the bay’s harvests declined because of pollution, diseases and heavy fishing. Then the cost of fuel went up, and the math of a waterman’s livelihood no longer worked out.
Since 1994, the number of licensed commercial fishermen in Maryland and Virginia has fallen 11 percent, to 9,571.