Sunday, October 28, 2007

Chesapeake Bay - Oysters = ?

Smith Island was one of our many adventures on the Alternative Fall Break that was extremely interesting. About half of the group went to Smith Island on Monday October 8, 2007. Smith Island is located in Maryland and made up of three small towns. These towns have not experienced as much growth or prosperity as seen in the rest of the United States. This Island has relied on watermen as their sole livelihood for as long as they can remember. These watermen were people who cultivated oysters from the Chesapeake Bay and sold them. However, with the massive drop in the number of oysters inhabiting the Chesapeake Bay today, Smith Island has definitely felt the effects.

Upon entering the island there was an immediate visual impact that I was not expecting. Usually when I think of an island I think of beautiful beachfront property or small well kempt houses sparingly placed throughout. This was not the case on Smith Island. As the small mail boat entered Ewell’s small harbor, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of extremely weathered and run down boat houses or what looked like sheds. After exiting the boat our group split up into groups that ventured different ways.

As we walked down the narrow one lane roads I remember thinking, ‘this must be a ghost town’. There was no one to be seen. It amazed me how mailboxes were wide open and every house looked empty. The road we were on looped around to the back sides of the houses. There was a creek that ran along the left side of the road between the backyards and the road. This poor creek was filled with beer cans, plastic bags, and all sorts of other types of trash. This was almost painful to see because the town had its own charm to it until you looked down and saw the litter everywhere.

As we entered the main part of town we say this beautiful church. The Ewell Church was a majestic building with a beautiful cemetery behind it. This looked like it was the center of town because the “Smith Island Center” and “Rukes General Store and Seafood Deck” were both across the street. At that moment is when we started to see livelihood. I talked to the cook at the general store and learned that there were about 300 people that lived on the island. Later on this fact would become blurred when we regrouped and discussed the many different answers heard by the citizens of the island.

There were many events that took place on the island that day. Some of us were invited to stay with a resident for free whenever we wanted to, some rented golf carts and explored more of the island, some got to hear small town gossip, while others got free soy smoothies from the ‘New York Experience’. All of these events that happened that day have many exciting stories attached. However, the most amazing thing was that through all of the fun and strange experiences there was an ability to learn and see, first hand, the effects of watermen loosing their jobs in a society that solely relies on their income.


Julesjm said...

I was another Shippensburg student who fortunately also was able to participate on the trip over to Smith Island. I however, I was able to rent a golf cart and travel across to the other side of the island.

When we rented the carts they gave you a small map of the island which outlined the few attractions that were there (places like the post office, store, etc.). On the map there was specifically outlined an area where tourists were to not take the golf carts. Looking back on it, this might have been because when the tide came in the road was flooded, but this forbidden part was also very different from the other side.

Once we crossed the bridge and started down the road we passed the incinerator. Here is where the town garbage is burned weekly. All garbage from the town gets loaded into this machine and burned, what cannot be burned and does not disintegrate is placed on a pile next to the building. This area in general was speckled with pieces of trash and litter disbursed through the grass and along the road.

Further down the road we came to another section of the island. It was at this point where I believe we entered the poor side of the neighborhood. Houses here were not maintained, they were vacant and even one was condemned. There were cars parked along the road that were falling to pieces, debris all of descriptions was in people’s front yard, there appeared to be no sense of pride of ownership among these people.

Driving back through the open road between the two small towns I began to think about how much the economy of this town has changed, yet how much of this town is remains the same. Our visit occurred during the middle of the afternoon while the fisherman would have been out on the water, so unfortunately I was unable to talk firsthand to a waterman. But if I was given the opportunity to speak with one, I would have liked to ask them how things have changed in the area. And I would have been curious to know, that even with their profession dwindling, are they going to stick it out until the end?

Kaitlin said...

It's unfortunate the impact that the decrease in oysters has caused. I wonder why the decrease has occured? Is it just because of overfishing or are there also natural causes?

It is interesting to read about a town that is so greatly affected by something as small as an oyster. Living in the suburbs all of my life, I do not often think about tiny creatures having such a big impact on an entire population.

peanut said...

As a matter of fact, there are other causes that have contributed to the dwindling oyster population. While the oystermen do have an impact, it seems that disease and pollution also have just as big, if not more, of an impact.
The morning of the day we went to Smith Island, we stopped by Deal Island and had a talk with some folks from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (Md DNR) about the declining oyster population. Chris Judy was the main speaker, and there were also two or three oystermen there we could talk to personally if we wanted to. The fact that oystermen and someone from the Md DNR were in the same room together is important in itself. Later that day I talked with a lady from Smith Island and she seemed to be totally opposed to what the Md DNR was doing. From her perspective, the Md DNR is responsible for all the hardships oystermen are facing today. To us, the Md DNR is simply trying to save the oyster and trying to ensure that oysters will be available for the oystermen for as many more years as possible. Due to all the restrictions placed on oystermen, to ensure that the oysters are not harvested right out of existence, it seems to many oystermen and their families like the Md DNR is trying to run them out of business.
From what Chris Judy had to say, though, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay have and will continue to change until some action is taken by us all to help preserve and detoxify those waters. I feel sorry for the oystermen, too. Being an oysterman has been in many of their families for generations, and the oystermen alive today probably know little else in terms of alternate employment. If the Chesapeake became uninhabitable for oysters, then all these men may find themselves jobless and in very sore need of financial assistance. I cannot imagine what they will do or even what they could do. It seems pretty hopeless.
There are certainly things that we all can do to improve this situation but most people do not relize or do not care how much they are hurting the people and environment around them. They simply do not relize the huge impact we can have on the environment from the way in which we choose to live our lives. They are not ill-willed people; they just do not know any other way to live. If this is the way everyone else is living then it must be okay for the environment, right?

jameson said...

Smith Island was a place I felt had a uniqueness all of its very own. Being Maryland's only inhabited off-shore Island in the Chesapeake Bay, I was surprised when a local coffee distributor told me that there were only about 400 people living there.
Unfortunately I was not able to rent a cart (due to the roads being wet from high tide) but I did get to see most of the island. From my observations you could tell this island has a rich history and cultural heritage all of its very own. A couple things that specifically grabbed my attention were the graveyard and the church. Nearly all of the graves I looked at had the same last name (Evans) on the grave stone. The town Church was also an interesting place to tour because it doubled not only as the town’s school but also the jail. When I spoke about this to the coffee distributor he told me that the town only had two classes for their students; one with grades K-5, and another with grades 6-12. Another interesting fact about the island was that the famous artist Reuben Becker used to live there. His strong feelings for the marshes, boats, and people can be seen in many of his famous paintings.
The distinctive speech pattern some of the locals had was another unexpected occurrence that altered my thoughts of the island. Although many people didn’t seem to have a distinct accent, some people, like the owners of the local restaurant did. From what I could understand, the restaurant owners had owned the business establishment for many years and have plans of passing it down to future generations.
It is beyond question that the diminishing oyster population has and will have an adverse impact on Smith Island. This is very unfortunate because nothing is really being done to put an end to this problem. I feel if we worked together with one another maybe we can come up with a reasonable solution that would put an end to this apparently ongoing problem.

Vinny R. said...

Smith Island, for me, was one of my favorite experiences on the alternative fall break trip. It was an amazing experience and nothing like what I was expecting.

Before heading to the island we were all informed that this was a secluded island that has very old styles, relating to old English standards. I expected things to be almost like an Amish setting, but it was nothing like that. After taking about a forty-five minutes boat ride on a mail boat we arrived at Smith. The island just looked like a normal small local town that we would find on the mainland.

The island was different from a small town that we would find in the mainland however, as we learned during our visit. While we there we learned some interesting things about how the people there live. The thing I found to be the most interesting is that there is no police presence on the island at all, the church runs everything. I would assume the church acts like a sort of a town center to the community because it clearly has a great deal of value in the community. Also, we met an interesting person on the island that does stained glass mosaics for a living, her name is Laureen Watjen. She told us that she moved to Smith Island to get into a quieter environment and to get away from the crazy New York life, so, another thing I noticed about this area is that can appeal to different types people in our own society.

I just wished we could have stayed a little bit longer to see if we could possibly learn more about these people’s lifestyles. Everyone we talked to there was very friendly and willing to share any information and answer any questions we had about their community. I’m glad I went on this trip to Smith Island, I took a great deal of information away from it.

Willie said...

Ah yes, Smith Island. Other than the marsh cleanup at Tom's Cove, Smith Island was the most insightful and impactful adventure on the trip to Wallops Island for me. It was interesting to see how these individuals live everyday, and for the few people I talked to, love the way they live. The island provides them with the opportunity to be free from the constraints of the typical American culture, and why this may be greatly beneficial in some aspects, undoubtedly it can also provide problems.

Perhaps the part that I found most interesting from Smith Island was the people who were living there. Form my conversations with the individuals on the island and my classmates following the trip, it seems as though the majority of individuals on the island are non-natives, and come from the "mainland" as it has been dubbed. Furthermore, I find it quite contradictory and almost humorous that individuals who grew up on the island could not wait to get off, and those who had migrated to the island don't want to leave. Perhaps this speaks to the charm of the island, but it could also be interpreted as the eeriness that one can only wholly understand through living in such a unique environment.

Also, Smith Island seems to be breeding some sort of counter-culture. Two of the individuals whom I spoke with on the island are very recent residents, and both of them are artists as well. They view the island as a sanctuary in which they can not be limited artistically and also a place bursting with inspiration. They are also trying to transform the island into an artist's retreat in which anyone can come and be encouraged in their artistic endeavors. Although I know very little of the 1960's since I am a product of the 90s, it seems to me as though Smith Island has the potential to be the Haight Ashbury for a future generation. It seems to have an aura of love and peace, and a drug problem is also present and growing. However, it is not nearly as accessible as the streets of sunny San Francisco!

kmarie said...

I enjoyed myself at Smith Island. So maybe there was a bit of heat, but the information gathered was so important. Going to Smith Island we got to experience a place only a few people have been to. I can't say that my idea of what the island would be was anything close to what is actually was. I thought it would be a neat and clean little town similar to Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls for anyone familiar. I thought it was interesting how not many teenagers were left on the island because where did they go? I can't imagine they all went away to college. Smith Island citizens that have been there for a while seem to love the place. Visiting was definitely an experience I'm glad I participated in.

John said...

I had absolutely nothing to do with this trip, but I am a native of the Eastern Shore (Rock Hall) and have family in Crisfield and Smith Island. I wanted to mention that Smith Islanders survive by catching crabs, not oysters. Those little shacks on the water serve to sluff soft crabs. This is their number one source of income. If they do decide to catch oysters in the winter they must come up the bay, at least as far as Cambridge to where the Dermo and MSX have not harmed the oyster population. They live on their boats during the week and go home on the weekends. Oh, and I wanted to mention that we call them waterman, this encompasses all of the jobs that they do on the water (crabbing, oystering, fishing, clamming etc). Two things have severely affecting the Smith Island lifestyle, are global warming and bay pollution. Global warming is raising the height of the tide causing erosion and flooding the island. Pollution (excess nutrients) from sewer plants and farm runoff have caused the severe decline in all seafood.