Two young men sit at the bar, sipping drinks, chatting, watching boats coming and going in the harbor, their thoughts more internal than external.
“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do it,” says one. “There’s only three of us in the kitchen and not many more out front. Not sure we’re going to be able to open all those days.”
Up and down the main streets of waterfront towns on the Eastern Shore, talk is the same. Shortages.
What the signs tell us the waitress confirms.
Some say closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Others just a couple of days.
“They don’t have enough people to open every day,” she says. “It’s tough to keep up.”
I mention the extra federal unemployment money coming because of the pandemic. People making more money by staying home.
“And that’s going until September,” I say.
“No,” says the waitress. “Gov. Hogan says July 1 those checks are ending. Says there are plenty of jobs to be had. He’s right.”
Over in Delaware, Gov. Carney hasn’t made a move on the checks. They’re still scheduled to continue through September. That doesn’t make businesses in the resort areas happy. They’re struggling to find help as well.
Out on the water, watermen are more than happy to go to work but they’d like there to be more crabs. “Picking up a little,” says one buyer, “but still scarce.” The numbers continue to tell the story. Watermen are getting around $150 per bushel now, down from $200 a few weeks ago. Retailers are getting $50 and $60 per dozen, more for the bigger crabs.
A sign taped to a seafood window inside Chesapeake Landing Restaurant between St. Michaels and Tilghman Island gives customers the latest skinny on crab meat. It notes that there are worldwide shortages of crab meat and management expects the price of crabmeat to soon hit $50 per pound for lump, if it’s not there already. Of course that means the price for crab cakes and other crab dishes will also be on the rise. Supply, demand, inflation, and effects of the pandemic continuing to ripple out.
In the main stem of the Chesapeake, rockfish are heading north. “They’re getting up above the bay bridge now,” says one local fisherman. “Not unusual for this time of the year.”
Another talks of charter captains from as far south as Solomons on the Western Shore making their way up to the mouth of the Chester River and northward even of Rock Hall to find rock for their customers.
The pros know where the fish go.
And catfish – blues, yellows and a few other varieties – continue to be part of the discussion. One fisherman angling recently around the bay bridge pulled in an eight or 10-pound blue catfish which I hear is the preferred variety for eating. When he opened its stomach to see what it had been feeding on, he found lots of small blue crabs.
Part of the scarcity of crabs? It all adds up.
Finally, these observations from the 2020 census. The population of the entire Delmarva Peninsula, counting the nine counties of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Delaware’s three counties and the two counties of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, grew modestly from about 1,392,716 in 2010 to about 1,455,913 in 2020. The densely urban area of Delaware’s New Castle County lies above the C&D Canal which is often considered the dividing line for the Delmarva Peninsula. Take out the biggest part of New Castle County’s 556,165 people and the overall population of the Delmarva Peninsula falls below 1 million.
The peninsula is 170 miles long from north to south and 70 miles wide at its center, between Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. At its isthmus, where the C&D Canal crosses at the northern end, the peninsula is 12 miles wide.
There you have it – summer is here, the summer solstice of 2021 now in the rear view mirror and hours of daylight decreasing as the temperatures increase.
For those who have stayed with me this far, here is another Gilbert Byron poem from his 1947 collection These Chesapeake Men:
FISHING ON CHESTER RIVER BRIDGE
They came with long poles of bamboo,
Briskly, as if they had a job to do,
Instead of lounging long hours by the rail,
Catching shiners while they wished for whale.
Each fisher had his favorite, private spot,
Where old pilings, current and what not
Conspired to lure the river’s largest fish,
To grace the patient, ever-waiting dish.
Long summer days the time I always had,
Lounging lazily with my dreamer dad,
Beneath the old draw wearing sun haloes,
We pulled perch from the cool shadows.
Dennis Forney grew up on the Chester River in Chestertown. After graduating Oberlin College, he returned to the Shore where he wrote for the Queen Anne’s Record Observer, the Bay Times, the Star Democrat, and the Watermen’s Gazette. He moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1975 with his wife Becky where they lived for 45 years, raising their family and enjoying the saltwater life. Forney and Trish Vernon founded the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper serving eastern Sussex County, in 1993, where he served as publisher until 2020. He continues to write for the Cape Gazette as publisher emeritus and expanded his Delmarva footprint in 2020 with a move to Bozman in Talbot County.