The working water women of the Chesapeake Bay
by Larry Chowning
Lisa Rose, Ida Hall and Tammy Croxton work the water as commercial “fisher women” on the Chesapeake Bay. All three do it for different reasons, and one common reason—they love it!
Lisa Rose, 40, is a fifth generation of a Northern Neck family that has worked the water. Two years ago she got her commercial fishing card to oyster with her father, Lacy Rose Jr., and brother, Shaun Rose, on the deadrise workboat Miss Lindsay. They work out of Reedville.
“When I was growing up I hated being a watermen’s daughter,” she said. “We were either rich or poor, depending on if the crabs were running or there were oysters to harvest.
“I realized the beauty of the business on October 20, 2014 when my father and brother took me out oystering,” said Lisa. “We were dredging on grounds that my father had worked years ago with his father. The grounds had been dry for years. When we started bringing up oysters, Daddy got tears in his eyes from seeing oysters on grounds that he and his father had worked. That moment enlightened me.”
Since the 2014 season, Lisa has been working alongside her father and brother during oyster season. She also has become an advocate of commercial watermen and, along with several other watermen, has founded a new watermen’s association, Watermen of Virginia Engaged (WAVE).
WAVE’s main purpose is to change the public’s perspective of working watermen, said Rose. “The perspective of watermen by some people is not what we are,” she said. “Most watermen understand completely the significance of being responsible and obeying laws that conserve and protect our natural resources. We understand that in order for us to continue to work the water generationally we have to obey the laws. The boys (watermen) have a lot of pride and grit. They don’t go out there just to make a dollar. They love what they are doing and see it as a lifetime career.” Lisa and others with WAVE are trying to partner with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and other conservation groups in an effort “to save the bay” and help define the waterman’s role in this effort.
When working the water, Lisa wears a pink hat to let the men know there is a woman onboard. “The men in the boats are not always used to seeing a woman working the water,” she said. “I like to let them know I’m around just to avoid occasional remarks that come across the radio when they think there are only men around,” she said with a chuckle.
She noted that the average age of a Virginia waterman is 64. “I feel it is important for my generation to get involved in keeping our life, culture and heritage alive,” she said. “I plan on working hard on the water, and off the water as an advocate for our way of life.”
Ida Hall works out of Jarvis Creek, a small tributary at the mouth of Dividing Creek that opens up into Chesapeake Bay. She fishes crab pots by herself with an 85-pot license.
Ida has worked the water for over 30 years and, in her early years, that soft voice of hers quietly urging the preservation of the bay’s fisheries and environment was listened to by mostly wind and tide.
Of late, and after years of persistence, that’s changed! Ida is an advocate of commercial fishing and is a member of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, a commission charged with regulating and sustaining the recreational and commercial fisheries of the Potomac River.
She is also secretary for the Virginia Waterman’s Association and a member of the Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel, a panel composed of watermen and people in the industry devoted to making the blue crab fishery sustainable.
Ida’s interest as an advocate of the bay and commercial fishing goes back to her childhood and love of her family and their Bluff Point farm on Jarvis Creek. Growing up, she visited grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins in summers and holidays while visiting the Northern Neck from her home in Danville.
Her cousin, Hal Hall, and other relatives were commercial fishermen, working pound nets, crab pots and oystering. When visiting, Ida would go out fishing with Hal and she fell in love with the way of life.
Her father was a doctor and she grew up a doctor’s daughter, graduating from Danville High School and from the College of William and Mary in 1972 with a psychology degree.
“I always loved the water, especially the Chesapeake Bay,” said Ida. “I fell in love with the waterman’s way of life that was so connected to and revolved around the rise and fall of the tides, the phases of the moon, the direction of wind, and the sunrises and sunsets. Our lives and livelihoods are not governed by the hours on a clock or watch, but by the rules of nature,” she said.
In June of 1997 Ida caught the eye of Delegate Tayloe Murphy and Delegate Albert Pollard when she wrote a Letter to the Editor that appeared in two local newspapers. It was titled: “Crab potter troubled by new waterfront attitude.” Her continued willingness to battle for her beliefs led to a phone call in September of 2002 from the Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth, who asked Ida to serve as one of the state’s commissioners on the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
“Personally, I don’t think the majority of the people love our coast and our waterways enough,” said Ida. “I believe it will be the passionate voices of the Chesapeake Bay watermen and fishermen nationwide, who love the water and working on it, who will demand that our workplace be productive, clean, profitable and sustainable.”
Croxton Seafood is just a few miles outside of Kilmarnock, between Barnes and Henrys creeks, and is a family business. Tammy and her husband Mike work hand in hand to run the business, started by Mike’s parents, Alice and Mike Croxton Sr.
“I married into the business,” Tammy said. “It seems women are not often in this type of business unless they grow up in it or marry into it.”
Alice and Mike Sr. used to run Mike’s Seafood in Kilmarnock before fast-food places popped up throughout town. Tammy met Mike Jr. working at the family restaurant. “I started at the restaurant, but when they found out I could clean soft crabs I ended up at the crab house,” she said.
Tammy was 16 years old when she and Mike Jr. started dating. “Mike had to have me home at a certain time and he would always come to the crab house to fish the floats right at the end of our date. I think that’s why he married me . . . because I knew how to fish the floats,” she said. “None of his other dates could catch onto it.”
During crabbing season, Tammy does most of the shore work but will, on occasion, go out and fish peeler traps and cull crabs. “I try to stay off the boats. I really don’t mind culling peelers but I don’t like hard crabs,” she said. “They bite harder.”
Tammy grew up in Weems where her father was a carpenter while also working some crab pots and gill nets. “I ate a lot of seafood growing up and my favorite fish is sugar toad,” she said.
In the wintertime, Tammy goes out with Mike Jr. to either patent tong or hand dredge for oysters on public and private oyster grounds. “I work right alongside Mike, and we go out on the water in the worst of conditions.”
Oystermen in wooden deadrise boats are not always able to go out and work when there is a skim of ice on the water. “Our aluminum boat cuts right through the ice. There are cold winter days when we are one of the only boats working. What I like most about our boat is that is has a very warm cabin,” said Tammy, who is treasurer of the Virginia Watermen’s Association.
“Working the water really is a good life and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else,” she said. “The water and bay have been good to us, and I’m very thankful for that.”