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Volume 15, Issue 31 ~ August 2- August 8, 2007

Blue Crab Dialogue

Watermen and scientists are different Bay species

The temperature rose to simmer. At issue at this forum was a proposal to increase the minimum size of blue crabs legally harvested in Maryland. Scientists showed tables and charts of mind-numbing data on the crab population in Chesapeake Bay.

Finally, a waterman lost patience. He stood up and shouted, “You can’t understand a crab by counting!”

A hundred other watermen in the room burst into cheers and applause.

That interaction at the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee meeting a few years back was a turning point for Michael Paolisso, a University of Maryland anthropologist who studies Chesapeake culture and environmental discourse.

A year later, 23 scientists, watermen and resource managers — all working on the blue crab — met in a more relaxed setting. This time they came eager to understand different viewpoints. With Paolisso moderating, they shared their diverse perspectives and knowledge. Scientists then joined the watermen on their boats, helping cull crabs, while watermen visited laboratories and offices.

Paolisso structured the exchange to improve relationships among people who care about the Bay.

Paolisso’s blue crab dialogue highlighted what the anthropologist calls the cultural models through which scientists and watermen perceive the Bay environment. All of us have models to help us deal with the world’s complexity. They come from our beliefs about religion, nature, work and more, along with our ecological and economic knowledge born of experience. We hate changing our models, anthropologists say.

The second time around, scientists and watermen found they stood on common ground: both did competitive work; both had to provide for families.

By the third session, says Paolisso, they were beginning to get to know one another. Later, biologist Tuck Hines said, “There’s as big a range of watermen as there is a range of scientists.” Hines directs the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Another crab biologist, Tom Miller of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, was “very skeptical going in,” but once inside found the dialogue “groundbreaking.” Scientist or not, he hadn’t even known he was using a cultural model.

Miller learned a lesson in how to explain his research. Scientists seek to understand nature well enough to predict what it will do in the future. Watermen, on the other hand, don’t believe nature can be predicted.

“If I use the word predict, watermen switch off,” Miller says. “They believe in divine providence.”

They’re more likely to listen if Miller says something like, “If this exists, then this will likely happen.”

Scientists and watermen also learn differently. Watermen know the Bay through their heritage, and scientists know it through their instruments.

Watermen and scientists also work for different goals. Scientists want to understand and preserve nature, while watermen want to earn a living from the water. Their different motives can muddy their understanding of one another.

For instance: Every year, scientists in Maryland and Virginia try to anticipate the next year’s crab harvest through a winter survey made by dredging the Bay bottom. Watermen who’ve watched told Paolisso that scientists know a lot about crabs, but they don’t know how to catch a crab. Scientists inexplicably dredge for crabs where there aren’t any, said Daniel Webster, a Deal Island waterman.

Scientists say they know the crab hotspots, such as Tangier Sound, but they randomly sample the entire Bay to survey the whole population.

“We’re not trying to catch crabs,” says Miller. “We’re trying to estimate numbers of crabs. If I was a waterman, I’d want to go where crabs are abundant, but I’d miss all the other places where there are crabs.”

Biologists and watermen also work in different universes — though they both chase the same creature. Scientists study the entire Chesapeake Bay, even beyond, while watermen know the Bay bottom they work in intimate detail. Paolisso reckons a waterman skimming along in a workboat is not looking at the surface but is seeing all the familiar features of the bottom in his mind’s-eye.

Watermen intuitively know where to put their pots, moving them around to anticipate the crabs’ movements.

“The watermen are making all these subtle calculations,” Paolisso says. “They know a lot about what crabs do but not a lot about why they do it.”

Says Hines, “Watermen make correct observations but the wrong conclusion.” For example, watermen (as well as some scientists) used to think that crabs came up the Bay in the spring.

“I think we’ve convinced the watermen now that it’s really just a wave of crabs coming out of the sediment,” Miller says.

The blue crab dialogue suggests that Chesapeake Bay is more than an ecosystem, Paolisso says. It is also an idea that encompasses the cultural models of watermen and scientists. Where Chesapeake watermen are coming from has been mostly ignored, he maintains, and this ignorance has contributed to the Bay’s degradation.

Many Chesapeake problems are rooted in human behavior, Paolisso says. So the Bay’s future needs social scientists to work alongside watermen and biologists.

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