Chesapeake Bay is one of the lowest-lying areas in the United States. Due to a combination of post-glacial subsidence* and rising tide, the hundreds of islands that once occupied the bay have mostly disappeared. There are only three inhabited islands left: Tangier, Smith and Hoopers.
Chesapeake Bay is rising twice as fast as the global average. The region’s relative sea level is projected to rise as much as two feet in the next 35 years and up to five feet or more by the end of the century.
Given that the elevations of these last three remaining inhabited islands are at sea level, these islands are in imminent danger of also disappearing.
The goal of my journey to Chesapeake Bay was to record the lives of these remaining inhabitants and to document the erosion that is occurring.
Tuesday, October 16
We began our day with Jay Falstad, the Executive Director of Queen Anne’s Conservation Association. He was joined by Wayne Gilchrest, a former US Representative to the House, now in charge of the Sassafras Environmental Education Center at Turtle Creek, Maryland. They gave us a geological history of the Chesapeake Bay as we walked along the shore of the bluffs on Bloomfield to experience this fragile landscape.
Constant pounding water strikes these bluffs causing severe erosion. Trees hang over the top of the cliffs exposing their roots and ancient sedimentary rocks from the Appalachian Mountains are strewn along the shore. As we walk, we feel as though we are walking in an ancient land.
At 4PM, we met Tom Horton and David Harp at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge. Tom is a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University and an award-winning writer.
Dorchester County is the 4th largest county in Maryland. He describes growing up in the area and how drastic the changes have been since his childhood.
Tom’s documentary, High Tide in Dorchester, describes these changes.
The Blackwater Refuge is a beautiful canvas that changes with the light of the season. The marsh has been home to the migration of monarch butterflies, egrets, ospreys, eagles and snow geese.
Tidal wetlands are necessary to provide a buffer that will blunt the impact of storm surges that cause coastal erosion. But as the ocean rises, the marshes in the Blackwater Refuge are disappearing and many of the trees have died. They have been stripped bare of their needles, branches, and brown bark, appearing as ghosts against the open sky. What was once the Blackwater River 30 years ago is now Lake Blackwater.
Wednesday, October 17
Hoopers Island is a series of three islands in Dorchester County, located between the Honga River and Chesapeake Bay. It is one of the oldest settlements in Maryland.
Because of erosion and sea level rise, only 430 residents remain on upper Hoopers Island. It is losing 2 acres a month to coastal flooding.
Johnny Shockley, founding partner of Hoopers Island’s Oyster Aquaculture Co., is the “king” of oyster conservation. He gave us an in-depth tour of Hoopers Island and his oyster farm.
Johnny employs a full-time biologist to create oyster seeds by extracting oyster eggs and sperm, which will create embryos that will attach to microscopic fragments of oyster shells. These seeds will grow into tiny oysters by feeding on controlled algae production. The oysters grow rapidly with the consumption of algae and act as filter feeders by providing a natural solution to removing excess algae and sediment from the bays.
Johnny not only produces his signature Chesapeake Gold oysters from these seeds, he also sells these seeds to other oystermen that will farm oysters.
At one time, oysters acted as a natural filtration system in the bays. Due to the diminished population of natural oysters, oyster farming has become a great solution to filtering the excess algae that has infiltrated the bays. In addition to combating bay pollution, this also provides jobs, economic opportunities and a source of food that can be available throughout the world.
We then stopped at Russell Hall Seafood (the state’s century-old, family-owned Phillips Seafood Company), a crab-processing facility that depends on migrant Mexican pickers to extract and package crabmeat from the bushels received daily. Cans of Phillips crabmeat are shipped throughout the world.
The workers come to Maryland every year during crab season, from April through October. The seafood company covers the cost of their transportation, lodging and food. They are paid a per-pound salary.
This year President Trump curtailed the amount of H-2B visas (seasonal workers) and began issuing these visas on a lottery system.
Russell Hall had no workers until June. Some of the processing centers received no pickers at all. This 11-hour per day, non-stop work is tedious and no American workers can fill the void.
We then headed to Hoopersville to interview Kathy Blake at her home in Fishing Creek, Hoopers Island.
Kathy lives with her husband, her five-year-old granddaughter, three dogs and a myriad of cats in a house raised on cinder blocks between a creek and a low-lying road. She wakes each day not knowing how high the water will be in her yard. Most days, she takes her granddaughter up the driveway to the school bus by canoe.
We arrived at her home during low tide, enabling us to walk on her marshy lawn.
Kathy describes the wildlife that the tides bring to her property. Snakehead fish are a common occurrence, swimming around the perimeter of her home. Some days an occasional snake appears.
On these days, she prefers to stay inside.
Kathy’s back stoop has been crumbling due to constant flooding, necessitating her to hoist the stoop up on cinder blocks in order to access her house. We noticed a small crab by these steps - a remnant of yesterdays’ flooding.
The Fishing Creek causeway from the upper island floods at high tide most of the year. Kathy has replaced five cars in the last few years due to flooding.
Half of the remaining Hoopersville homes are for sale, but there are no buyers. Kathy would love to move but she has no resources to relocate.
After meeting with Kathy, we drove to the home of John Tall.
John works for Johnny Shockley and grew up in Fishing Creek. He showed us his home on the bay next to the historic Middle Hooper Island Cemetery. John has purchased a new home in town and hopes to sell this property.
He pointed out the many changes that had occurred in the area since he was a small boy. The trees that used to block his view on either side of his home have disappeared. A barn that used to house his children’s toys has now blown away.
Since the 1980s, he has lost 60 feet of coastal property. During high tide, which happens several times a year, 3-4 feet of water floods his garage. He needs to keep his tractors on lifts above 5 feet so that they wont be destroyed. There are now only 50 homes in Fishing Creek and most of those are second homes. His children and most of the other descendants have moved away.
Thursday, October 18
We travelled this morning to interview Casey Todd at his home in Crisfield, a town of 2,726 and the self-proclaimed “crab capital of the world”.
Casey’s ancestors arrived in Holland Island in the 1600s where the new world would give them the opportunity to pursue a life on the water.
Today, Holland Island is mostly under water. The last remaining unoccupied home collapsed in 2010.
Casey gave us a tour of his property, which is protected from ocean rise by a bulkhead.
He is the 8th generation to live in America. His great-grandfather, Cpt. George Todd married Mary H. Price (from Long Island – which no longer exists) in 1850 and lived on Holland Island until the island became uninhabitable in 1918.
He and many others disassembled and reassembled their homes on the mainland. Both Casey and his father grew up in this reassembled home on Marilyn Ave in Crisfield, Maryland.
Even though he was recuperating from back surgery, he graciously took us to his family home on Marilyn Ave. Many of the neighboring homes on the street belonged to other family members
Casey opened a large leather-bound bible, a wedding gift given to his great-grandfather and great-grandmother. Displayed were pages of his family history - births, marriages and deaths dating back to 1850.
Casey knows that his family is climate refugees and he fully expects that Crisfield will also be underwater in the next 50 years.
He believes that the government should be conscious of the fact that these coastal areas are in danger and that homes should be built in a standard today that considers the flooding that constantly occurs.
Casey then took us to MeTompkin Seafood, his seafood-processing plant, where we purchased the best fresh crabmeat.
At 12:30PM we boarded the Tangier Island mail boat operated by Cpt Brett Thomas. The mail boat operates once a day bringing passengers as well as needed supplies to Tangier Island.
Upon arrival, we met Bart Jaeger, Discovery Trips Manager in the educational department of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He has spent his entire life on the Bay and knows Tangier Island intimately.
Tangier Island has become quite famous. The mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, made headlines when President Trump telephoned him. “He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’” **
Trump received 82% of the Tangier Island vote in 2016. Evidently, the US Army Corps of Engineers is due to build a Jetty on the west side of Tangier Island at a cost of two million dollars. In 1930, 1,120 residents lived on Tangier Island. Today, the census stands at 450; 108 are past retirement, 66 out of the 210 homes that are occupied have only one person living in it, and 20% of the homes are empty. The school has only 60 students. One in five Tangiermen have died or moved away since 2000.
Tangiermen are deeply religious, supporting two churches - one Methodist and one non-denominational, each displaying a Star of David.
Golf carts are the primary mode of transportation. It is necessary to park these carts on lifts in order to prevent damage from flooding.
The watermen rise at 2:00AM to collect crabs from crates that have been scattered in the surrounding water. They continue to work, taking a rest break in the afternoon, and ending their day around 8:00PM after sorting and preparing the crabs to sell to the processing plants.
These men are also proficient is catching eels, fish and oysters.
Women run the businesses, stores and restaurants.
Tangier Island has been shrinking. Since 1850 the landmass has been reduced by 67%. Today only 83 of the 740 acres of Tangier are high enough for habitation. Nine acres per year are expected to erode into Chesapeake Bay. Canaan, a community in the Uppards on Tangier Island, no longer exists. Gravestones in Canaan are submerged and artifacts from the early 1900s are found in the marsh that remains.
After a local lunch at Lorraine’s we dropped our gear off at Port Isobel and headed back to Tangier where we walked the main road lined with many of the original homes from the 1600s. We continued on Long Bridge over “Big Gut” to walk on Tangier’s white sand beach.
We were due to meet Ooker at 2:00PM but Al Jazeera TV occupied his whole day. At 5:30PM we met him at his crab shanty.
Ooker’s boat, the Sreedevi, has become quite famous due to its hand drawn Jesus Fish and Star of David displayed on on its steering console.
The Eskridge’s arrived in Tangier to avoid fighting during the civil war. His mother’s family, Pruitts, have been on Tangier since the 1700s.
Ooker believes that God has a plan for Tangier Island. If God wants the Island to be saved, it will be saved. For him, climate change is not an issue. He believes that coastal erosion is caused by the tides. Two years ago, the crab population was diminished due to red moss that infested the traps. The town got together and prayed for the red moss to disappear. God answered their prayers and this year, there is no red moss.
We retired after eating Bart’s home-cooked meal so that we could wake early to watch the sun rise over the marsh.
Friday, October 19
Back in Tangier, we interviewed 87 year-old Milton Parks who grew up in Tangier and was a waterman for 60 years. He believes that the land will “return to the sea”. His daughter, Inez is the island’s only doctor.
We boarded the boat to go to Smith Island, stopping on the way to search for buried gravestones and artifacts in the Uppards.
Walking along the beach, we collected a few things but it was impossible to enter the marsh that was once Canaan.
Smith Island is a community spread across three inhabited locations - Rhodes Point (population 49), Ewell (population 120), and Tylerton (population 41).
Because of a combination of its low elevation and storm erosion, the island has been shrinking for centuries. In the last 150 years, Smith Island has lost over 3,300 acres of wetlands because of erosion and post-glacial subsidence into the Chesapeake.
Docking our boat in Tylerton, we walked to Mary Ada Marshall’s home to discuss her life on Smith Island.
Mary Ada is famous for the eight-layer Smith Island Cake, which became Maryland’s official dessert on April 24, 2008.
At 71 years old, she is the oldest person on the island. The youngest is 11. There are only 7 children in the school.
Mary Ada does not believe that Smith Island will exist in the future. The bulkhead in front of her home has prevented aggressive erosion, but flooding still occurs. All supplies come from the mainland by boat, but when they arrive, there is not enough manpower to deliver much of the freight. The only mode of transportation is by golf cart except for the lone fire truck. Everyone on the island pitches in to help one another. Life is difficult and most have moved to the mainland, including her children.
It was once possible to walk 6 miles from Tangier Island to Smith Island!
Bart brought us back to Crisfield where in order to board our helicopter to view the Chesapeake Islands from above. Flying over the Bay gave me a better idea of the severity of the eroding islands.
As we flew above the area, we witnessed the homes that were clustered together at the highest elevation on Tangier Island. We discovered submerged ships, tractors and homes. We found the foundation of the last Holland Island home that had collapsed and while flying over Holland Island could detect what was once a town square and perhaps a church.
Landing on the Holland Island marsh, I approached several tombstones, read their inscriptions, most on the deaths occurring in the late 1800s. The deceased never realized that their descendants would never be able to visit their graves.
Now only tombstones remain from what was once a vibrant community. The tales of their lives would be passed down orally for generations and recorded in history books.
To read about sea level rise is quite different than experiencing the effects of it from the viewpoint of those that live day-to-day with flooding and erosion.
What should these people do? Abandon the only lives that they have known and move?
According to Climate Central, under moderate sea-level-rise, an estimated 41,000 homes and more than $19.6 billion in property values face an increase in flooding during this century. Norfolk, VA floods 10 to 15 times per year. The question is no longer “if” sea level rises but ”how fast”.