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October 15, 2013

Soaking up the wisdom of the watermen

Ten minutes into my tour with Chesapeake Bay watermen, and I'd just asked the landlubber question of the century: What's the difference between a male and a female blue crab?

"How could you stand there and say that?" joked Calvin "Pee Wee" Matthews, a third-generation waterman who had just hauled up a net of wriggling crabs from his boat on Maryland's West River, a tributary of the bay, which is surrounded by Maryland and Virginia and is the largest estuary in the United States.

"She's from D.C.," my tour guide, John VanAlstine, said helpfully from our boat, the Patricia Anne, which we'd brought alongside Matthews's Little Rascal II.

The matter was soon cleared up, thanks to some Washington landmarks, no less: VanAlstine showed me that the female crab has a rounded abdomen — the shape of the Capitol dome — while the male's is needle thin — think the Washington Monument.

It's not every day that you can shoot the breeze with some watermen — the shrinking group of men and women who make a living oystering, crabbing and fishing on the bay — but the Watermen Heritage Tours program has made it possible.

In 2008, after a decade of plummeting crab populations, the federal government declared a fishery disaster, and Congress designated money to support the bay's 5,200 licensed watermen — a group that's far smaller than in the past, although historical numbers are unknown, according to the Maryland Watermen's Association. Some of those funds went into a tourism-training program, led by the Chesapeake Conservancy in partnership with the Coastal Heritage Alliance and other bay organizations, which since 2010 has certified 80 watermen to lead trips throughout the bay. (Another training course may take place in 2014.)

The idea is this: Tourism opens up another source of income for watermen while giving the public a chance to experience such centuries-old practices as baiting crab pots and tonging oysters. Or, if you're the less hands-on sort, listening to a fish tale or two on a sunset cruise or a kayak trip. "When I think of the Chesapeake Bay, there's nothing more iconic than a waterman on the water in his white workboat," said Joanna Ogburn, director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy, when we chatted before my tour.

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