He’s arguably the most famous name in crabdom, the man who opened the vast waters of Asia to the U.S. market that now imports crabmeat in quantities many times over what Chesapeake Bay in its heyday could have supplied.
He’s got fancier places in Annapolis and Ocean City, and crab factories across Indonesia employing thousands; but today, in the apartment over the little 25-picker operation on Hoopers Island, where his family’s empire began more than a century ago, Steve Phillips is where he still calls home.
Only there’s a lot less of it these days.
“It was a great place to grow up, but it’s getting smaller every year,” Phillips says, looking out toward Wroten Island in the Honga River where he’d pay 25 cents a bushel to pick wild asparagus in the 1950’s. Wroten is mostly saltmarsh now and maybe half the size it was back then, victim of erosion that scientists say will accelerate as sea levels rise around the Chesapeake.
Pointing west, Phillips indicates the slender remains of Barren Island, a barrier that for centuries protected Hoopers Island from eroding winds and waves.
“My great grandfather grew up there. . . there used to be about 250 people living there, had a church, had a school. . . it’s pretty much all washed away.
“If you look at the percentage erosion that we’ve had in the last 50 or 60 years . . . then it’s going to be more pressure on Hoopers Island. I think it’s going to have a tough future…There’s not enough money to be able to protect all the shoreline.
Both he and Morgan Tolley, manager of Phillips’ picking house in Fishing Creek on Hooper’s Island, talk of more trees dying along the roads, of marshes pushing back into where forests once stood; of trips re-routed or postpones due to tides over the roads.
Tolley, 45, goes back generations in lower Dorchester and in the seafood industry. These regions are ‘home’ to him too, but he’s chosen to live in Cambridge, on higher ground these days. “I grew up dealing with tidewater, driving through tidewater and dealing with storms. I really don’t wish to live down here unless I would have to,” he says.
“I’ve been traveling the roads of southern Dorchester County all my life, and even now coming to work. I see a huge difference in the land. . . almost looks like the land is sinking. . . more water on the land all over the county,” he says.
He says in recent years he’s seen high tides where “we pretty well have to close the plant down because there’s water.”
Both men are determined to keep picking crabs as long as possible here where the land in some places is no more than 100 feet, interposed fragilely between the Honga River and the main Chesapeake.
If you doubt their dedication, never mind that this is a tiny fraction of the Phillips empire, consider the sign hand lettered by Tolley that greets watermen pulling up here to sell their catch of bluecrabs:
“#1’s must be 5 ½ (inches across) and hard and fat. If I see one under 5 ½ they will be #2’s (a difference of $30 a bushel vs $70 for the prime #1’s).”
“I have saltwater in my veins,” Phillips explains. “I owe a lot. . . to the Chesapeake Bay and the watermen that work on the Chesapeake Bay. . . I owe them a deep debt of gratitude and have to thank them to a great extent for a lot of our success.
“I just would hope that it would continue forever, but I don’t guess many things do. . . but hopefully we can prolong the events that might occur in the future. We have a stone breakwater, which prevents the erosion, but there’s not enough money, never be enough money to protect every foot of shoreline.”