When John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s he reported that oysters "lay as thick as stones." Now they are at about 2 percent of their historic population, and in 2008 the federal government declared the blue crab fishery a commercial failure.
The Bay has seen much better days, and so have its watermen. Such is this premise of a new documentary by Laura Seltzer, “The Last Boat Out." Wednesday evening I attended an advanced screening of the documentary, which is narrated by Oceana board member Sam Waterston.
The 30-minute film portrays the Chesapeake Bay's watermen as an endangered species themselves, fighting to stay afloat amid shrinking populations of crabs, oysters and fish -- their historic bread and butter.
Filmmaker Laura Seltzer focuses on a pair of middle-aged brothers who are struggling to continue the family business on the water. They represent a few of the 2800 remaining watermen, who have seen a 70% decline in 30 years.
Nutrient pollution is a big part of the problem, as Seltzer demonstrates. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture, wastewater and fertilizer deplete the bay’s oxygen, creating dead zones that can’t sustain life.
One solution Seltzer focuses on is oyster farming. Oyster aquaculture creates habitat, filters the Bay’s water and adds new oysters as they spawn. But as audience members pointed out after the film, it takes a year and a half from “planting” to harvest, at which point the farmer will have thousands of oysters to sell at once, which can be a challenge for a waterman accustomed to selling a few bushels at a time.
One of the film’s most colorful characters is Dudley Biddlecomb, an elderly, suspendered former watermen who now spends his days teaching people how to farm oysters. (I personally could have watched an entire film about Dudley.)
After the film Seltzer answered questions from the audience, and a lively discussion ensued about the problems confronting the Bay and the best way to tackle them. Terry Cummings, Maryland Grassroots Coordinator from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, encouraged everyone to contact their representatives about the Chesapeake Clean Water Act.
"I hope you use this film to inspire others to clean up the Bay," Seltzer said.
And while I went home feeling pretty despondent about the future of the Bay, yesterday I saw some good news from the Washington Post. As a result of fishing limits on female crabs, the Bay's blue crab population has more than doubled in two years, reaching its highest level since 1997.
Perhaps the news is a sign that in 20 years, there could be a new, thriving breed of watermen.
“The Last Boat Out” premieres on Maryland Public TV next Wednesday April 21 at 9 pm and Hampton Roads Public TV on April 22. In the meantime you can see a preview of the film here and learn more on the Facebook page.