The ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, the United States’ largest coastal estuary, is under threat because of the combined effects of forest and wetland clearance for development, residential and agricultural runoff, and global warming. 

One community significantly affected by this is Tangier Island, home to many of the Bay’s “watermen,” who have lived off crab fishing and oyster harvesting since the island was settled in the mid-nineteenth century. A decline in shellfish and fish stocks plus new regulations to limit fishing threaten their livelihoods and historical way of life.

Tangier Island is also sinking and shrinking at an alarming rate because of natural erosion and rising sea levels due to climate change.  The residents of Tangier Island, led by their mayor and spokesperson, James “Ooker” Eskridge, are fighting for the survival of their community, appealing to the government for funds to introduce measures to hold back the Bay waters.  A study published in Scientific Reports in 2015 proposed a combination of stone breakers, sand dunes and tree planting at an estimated cost of $20 to $30 million dollars.

However, to date the government has not met their requests for support, and the future of the island, and its approximately 450 residents, is uncertain. Tangier Island has already lost 2/3 of its land mass in the last 167 years and experts calculate that the island may be uninhabitable within the next 20-50 years.

Communities like Tangier represent the earliest chapter in what is going to be a painful story, not only in the U.S. but around the world.  In the United States alone, 8 million people live in communities at risk because of rising sea levels.  Governments everywhere will soon be forced to decide which coastal communities are worth saving and which should be abandoned to the seas. 

On Tangier Island, the watermen continue to live, while they still can, in step with the rhythms of the Maryland blue crab, trawling the waters of the Bay from mid-March to November. Gignoux accompanied them on several of their runs in 2010.

12th April

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