Clean Bay Critical to Watermen Then and Now

Watermen Culling Oysters in the  Chesapeake Bay Credit to Library of Congress LC-USF34-014482-D)

Credit: Library of Congress

by Bonnie Lomax

Each year, the nation celebrates African American History Month, dedicating the month of February as a formal and themed opportunity to recognize and celebrate the contributions and the rich history of African-Americans. This year’s theme is “A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.

As an African-American and an amateur genealogist, I often think about my own family history and how my ancestors may have lived a hundred or more years ago. The United States Censuses of 1900 and 1910 list my maternal ancestors and their children as living in the communities of Dames Quarter, Ewell, and Chance, in Somerset County, bordering the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My great-grandfather and his sons were all listed in occupation as oystermen or watermen, earning a living harvesting oysters on the Chesapeake Bay.

Most likely, my ancestors and others would have faced many difficult challenges in their day-to-day lives. Their work required being away from home and family, spending extended periods of time on the water, often exposed to harsh weather conditions. Yet for them and the other early 20th century watermen, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay provided a kind of home, as well as a source of stability and income. In fact, their way of life depended on a clean and healthy Bay.

Today, the nation’s largest estuary continues to support many people’s livelihoods. (Check out this photo essay exploring the life of modern-day Chesapeake Bay watermen). However, like many ecosystems, the Bay faces enormous environmental challenges, including nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution, and the consequences of a changing climate.

Last year, EPA and its state, federal, and non-profit partners signed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, setting goals, outcomes and management strategies to guide the restoration of the Bay, its tributaries and the lands around them. That followed the establishment in 2010 of the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint for Restoration, or Bay TMDL, designed to ensure that all pollution control measures needed to fully restore the Bay and its tidal rivers are in place by 2025.

While government commitment is essential, individual actions can have a huge impact on the Bay. Check here for a list of simple everyday steps you can take to help the Bay.

Just as it was 100 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay continues to play a vital role in the lives of millions. The steps we take today are crucial in preserving this important resource – and its culture and history – for future generations.


About the author: Bonnie Lomax is the Communications Coordinator for the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region.


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