Water splashes violently against the hull of the boat as Richard Laird Jr. and his father race to the next crab pot, anxious for what it may hold. Like most fishing exploits, it is a game of luck and knowledge, along with environment. For centuries, Tangier Island has been a community based around the commercial fishing of crabs and oysters. It is a place where tradition, religion and family define the community, which itself is on the verge of a drastic change.
Once an island with thousands of residents, a mere 450 people now occupy the small marsh-filled piece of land situated in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay. They speak a unique English Restoration Era dialect which has stood the test of time due to tight family tradition. Children graduate from the Tangier Combined School, which houses K-12 grades. Most now move off of the island instead of doing what generations before them had once done; fish. Decreasing bay health, increased regulations and expensive fishing licenses have deterred younger generations from what most of their fathers and grandfathers had done to make a living. Some fishermen gave up that life years ago and now work on tugboats in the Gulf of Mexico or New York City, leaving Tangier for weeks at a time. But, they don’t want to leave.
During tide changes, water already drifts under homes. Combined with rising ocean water levels and storm surges, the island is facing devastating erosion. An estimated 9 acres of land disappear into the deep blue sea each year. This rapid decline of habitable land has had Tangier’s residents endlessly hoping for a sea wall for over a decade that has failed to come to fruition.
“I wouldn’t leave here, not unless they make us leave.” said Gary Parks.
Many residents are afraid of being kicked off of the land by the government if they deem it uninhabitable due to the endless erosion and flooding. Scientists have estimated several different predictions about the life span of the island, some saying that the island will be submerged in 30-50 years.
The island is a way of life to its residents, whose family connections go back for centuries. The source of their livelihood, the water, may take back exactly what it has given them, life. As the residents of the island explore what their futures may hold, I am documenting their way of life and the beauty and struggles that come with living on Tangier Island, a remote piece of land threatened by a shifting economy and the changing environment. This project is ongoing.