Sea level rise is diminishing many coastal habitats around the country. The Chesapeake Bay region is affected twice as fast due to glacial rebound and melting of the ice caps. For years, Smith Island has been affected by regular flooding and erosion of shorelines. This in turn creates a unique habitat and culture between members of the community. Although sea level rise and erosion are just some of the factors contributing to the loss of community, the dying waterman culture is a close second. Smith Island’s waterman culture and is a vital part of the community structure. With sea level rise encroaching, will tourism, jetties, and growth of native grasses save the watermen culture and land habitat of Smith Island?
Decades ago, watermen recruitment was much higher than it is now. In years past, men would grow up and become watermen just like their fathers. It was common to see father and son partnerships form. Mark, a local waterman on Smith Island, told me boys as old as five were out at the crack of dawn working with their fathers. As a male, being a waterman was a common path to follow. The education system plays a major role in the evolution of the culture. The school on the island ranges from kindergarten to seventh grade. Children would then take a ferry to Crisfield from eighth through twelfth grade. The majority of men would stop school after seventh grade and work full time with their fathers. Women would continue with their education in Crisfield. The watermen have adapted to this type of lifestyle their whole lives. As we fast forward in time, we start to see a shift in the watermen culture and the available natural resources.
Over the years, the natural resources have dwindled, leaving fewer watermen on Smith Island. With a population of only 137 yearly residents, only 30 watermen remain. Out of these 30 watermen there is one 23 year old, and the rest are dispersed between the ages of 55-80 years old. Recruitment numbers are low because there has been a decrease in crab populations. This drives most people away from pursuing this occupation. Many watermen left Smith Island to pursue a different career elsewhere. Another part of the issue is most of the people that live on Smith Island are retired. This leaves a low percentage of the population to potentially be watermen in the future. Although the education system is still the same as it has been, more boys are choosing to finish school in Crisfield rather than work with their fathers on the water. Most watermen prefer not to have their children follow in their footsteps. Mark mentioned that he “wanted the best for his daughter” and that she should “choose what she wants to do with her life.” The Final Vision Plan for Smith Island talks about preserving the watermen culture to ultimately “save Smith Island”. This seems counterproductive given that Mark and other watermen have told their children to pursue other occupations. The Final Vision Plan also mentions that Smith Islanders want to see an expansion in tourism. If tourism increases, there might be more recruitment for future watermen on Smith Island. This could be a possible solution to save the dying watermen culture that is so vital to the Smith Island community.
Sea level rise causes erosion of the shorelines and is impacting Smith Island everyday. For decades Smith Island has had to adapt to frequent flooding of streets and homes. A solution to prevent this problem resulted in the creation of a jetty. Jetties act as a barrier to block wave action and slow down erosion of shorelines. In the 1940’s Smith Island built a jetty. The “jetty still stands and is actively working,” stated Mark. I was surprised to hear a jetty that old is still permanent and is beneficial to saving the shoreline habitat. Wendell Berry notes in his article, “we need an economy that values durable goods” in order to see progress. This is exactly what Smith Island implemented with the jetty. Durable products will save the community members from paying more tax dollars to fix the degrading shorelines. With the success of the 1940 jetty, new jetties are actively being built around the island. Michelle, a local community member stated that these new jetties should last her lifetime and future generations to come. Even though jetties serve as a support system to prevent erosion, is it the most beneficial solution? The creation of jetties is a man made process that is not natural to the surrounding environment. This in turn leads to a more environmentally friendly solution.
A natural way to prevent shoreline erosion would be the introduction of native plant species to the Island. Planting native grasses results in an abundance of benefits. The growth of salt marsh grass slows water flow and prevents erosion from accumulating. Slowing down water movement also allows sediment to settle and creates more habitats for organisms. Salt marsh furthermore serves as a nursery and refuge for many organisms including migratory birds and fish species. Ultimately the introduction of marsh grasses will increase the biodiversity and prevent shoreline erosion.
Sea level rise not only affects community members but the biodiversity of plants and animals. Aldo Leopold notes “today… a mutual deterioration, not only of plants and soils but of the animal community.” Sea level rise causes increased salinity levels, which are detrimental to salt marsh grasses and crab populations. With a decrease in salt marsh grass, there is a direct negative effect on the organisms that live within the habitat. A solution to plant native salt marsh grasses on Smith Island will increase that habitat for crabs to occupy. This could be a solution that solves the declining crab population and saves the watermen culture from diminishing.
It is inevitable that the sea level will continue to encroach on the shoreline habitat. Smith Island is vulnerable and in need of help. With continuous efforts to recruit watermen, build jetties and introduce native plant species, we can only hope that this will be enough to save the unique Smith Island culture. Many solutions to save the watermen culture and shoreline habitats have arose, it is just a matter of implementing them in a cost effective way. People need to act soon before Smith Island becomes permanently uninhabited.
Baird, Suzanne et al. Final Vision Plan Smith Island. August 2015.
Berry, Wendell. Preserving Wilderness. Home Economics. 1987.
Leopold, Aldo. The Land Ethic. A Sand Country Almanac 1948.
Mark. Waterman on Smith Island. Ewell.
Michelle. Local Community member on Smith Island.