"Someday, I'd like to visit Tangier Island." We Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) staffers hear that sentiment frequently as we travel around the Chesapeake. A decade into the twenty-first century, people are still fascinated by the concept of a Virginia town with modern facilities and conveniences on an offshore island, accessible only by boat or airplane. Indeed, the students at the island's excellent K-12 school are just as computer-savvy as folks on the Eastern Shore's mainland, and most of its watermen depend on high-tech marine electronics to navigate the Bay safely and harvest a living from it.
Tangier increasingly welcomes visitors who come to understand and appreciate both the richness and the challenges of life on an island in the midst of a busy world. Those challenges are all too real, as it becomes increasingly difficult to make a living from the Bay, and in turn to provide services like college-preparatory education, modern health-care services, and enhanced wastewater treatment. The island's cultural richness, however, is very much alive in the people, the restaurants and shops, and the community's new Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center. The beaches, marshes, and waters around the island still provide fascinating Bay adventures for sailors, paddlers, birders, and anglers, with island businesses catering to each.
Part of the Tangier Community
CBF has been an integral element in the Tangier community since our late trustee, Randy Klinefelter, donated his beloved Port Isobel Island to us in the late 1980s, to be used as a residential center for environmental education. Port Isobel lies at the entrance to Tangier's eastern channel, a ten-mile run from Crisfield, just over the Maryland line to the northeast. Twenty years and ten thousand field trip participants later, half of the six Port Isobel staff members are island natives, and CBF is very much a part of the Tangier community.
Lonnie Moore, CBF's Fleet Senior Manager, was one of Tangier's most successful watermen before joining the CBF staff in 1990. In a recent conversation, he expressed what the island and its people mean to him.
"Tangier is a very special place, and we're always glad to share it with the students and adults who visit Port Isobel. As a native Tangierman, I have a hard time speaking objectively about this group of low, marshy islands and the town they sustain. For me, there's no other place to live. We're out here, in the middle of the Chesapeake, in the center of everything that goes on in the Bay. It's a wondrous natural place, and it's the highlight of Chesapeake commercial fishing, what we call 'the water business.'
"And Tangier, the town and the island. To me, it's family, friends, community, school, church, and the watermen's culture, all rolled into one. We pride ourselves on being self-reliant, but even as we are proud to stand on our own two feet, we know that what make us strong are the community and the church that form the foundation we stand on. We take great pride in the fact that most of the teachers at our Tangier Combined School (K-12) are either Tangier natives, like my daughter, Loni-Renee, or married to natives.
"Children here grow up with firm parental guidelines, but they're free to go anywhere on the island. Where else could my wife, Carol, send our four-year-old granddaughter, Alona, off to the grocery store with her wagon, to pick up bread and milk? Where else can a six-year-old boy who has learned to swim have his own poling skiff and be allowed to explore all day long in the summertime? And where else can that boy have such a spread of creeks, marsh guts, and beaches to explore?
"That's how I grew up. My father, who served as Tangier's postmaster, taught me to crab and fish, with both nets and hook-and-line. When I turned eight, I began crab potting with an uncle. I've loved working the water ever since, and for all of the crabs I've caught over the years, I'd still rather eat a dozen of them than a steak.
"For fifteen years after finishing high school, I crab-potted in the warm weather and crab-dredged in the winter, working all over Virginia's Bay. I worried, though, about how many crabs we were catching, because I saw two disturbing trends. Even though we were catching a lot, we had to work harder for them every year. That was a sure danger signal that the Bay's crab stocks were falling. At the same time, I saw Tangier's population decline, from around 950 to 500 today. In the past few years, over 50 percent of our watermen have left the water business to work on tugboats.
"That concern was the reason why, when CBF came to Port Isobel, I applied for a job as a Captain. It's amazing to look back now and realize that I've been with CBF for twenty years. I've missed working the water myself, but I learned quickly that I enjoy teaching school students, and because I live here, I'm still part of the waterman's culture. Today, I spend my days looking after CBF's fleet of workboats; last fall saw a steady stream of Coast Guard vessel inspections. Some day when I retire from CBF, I'll start crabbing again commercially, though I hope I won't have to work as hard at it then as I did when I was fresh out of school.
"One part of the CBF job that has not been easy, especially when the crab stocks were falling, has been being a shock absorber between the Tangier watermen and CBF about crabbing regulations. I've always understood that CBF has to act in the Bay's best interests, and that the Bay's best interests are best for the watermen too, over the long haul. I've also known that what CBF is doing to restore the Bay's water quality is even more important for crabs in the long term than the regulations. But I've always looked out for the immediate needs of watermen who have families to feed and bills to pay. It's a tricky balance, and some of the men here will never change their old-time opinion that they have the right of 'free plunder.' Thankfully, the regulations that Virginia and Maryland put in place in 2008 seem to have helped our crabs come back, and many watermen are learning how to make a good living without overharvesting.
"More and more, I see Tangier's people realizing that CBF is a positive new force in our community. CBF has invested in Tangier in many ways, including hiring islanders like me, working with others on new ways to bring income to the community, and contributing to our community's new health center. Most folks enjoy the young educators that CBF hires to work at Port Isobel, and we always enjoy sharing time with visitors who are genuinely interested in learning more about the island, us, and our culture. Whether you're on a CBF trip to Port Isobel, exploring the Bay in your own boat, or riding one of the tour boats from Crisfield, Onancock, or Reedville, come visit us. We're proud of our town, and our island."
What better invitation could a prospective visitor to Tangier receive? For more information on Tangier, start by visiting the town’s comprehensive, informative web site.
John Page Williams