Tangier's economy is based almost entirely on the blue crab fishery, which government officials say is suffering from over-harvesting, too much fishing gear in the water and pollution from farms and urban areas. Proposed fishing regulations led to bitter conflict between environmentalists and watermen. In 1995, conflict erupted on Smith and Tangier Islands over a blue crab regulation that ended in the burning of a shed owned by the regional environmental group called the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).
The Evangelical Environmental Declaration calls for followers of Christ "...to work for the reconciliation of all people in Christ, and to extend Christ's healing to suffering Creation. God's purpose in Christ is to heal and bring to wholeness not only persons, but the entire created order."
Susan Drake Emmerich spent three years with the watermen in an attempt to put those principles into practice. In conversations with watermen in their boats and crab shanties and with women in the crab processing houses, she discovered that their most pressing concern was the threat to their existing way of life. She also discovered that watermen and women of faith believed that there is a scriptural foundation to steward the environment and its creatures, including the fish.
This provided a bridge for the community to understand and accept environmental stewardship ideas promoted by the regional environmental group, which they had considered secular and threatening. The community developed the Tangier Watermen's Stewardship Initiative, which included local government, school and church leaders and citizens.
After Susan spoke on biblical environmental stewardship and loving thy neighbor at a joint service of both local churches, 58 watermen bowed down at the altar and wept and asked God to forgive them for breaking the fishery laws and not being obedient to God. They then committed to the "Watermen's Stewardship Covenant." Many people's behavior and attitudes toward environmentalists, creation and the future changed radically and positively. Watermen even in their 70's and 80's -- men who are not prone to change -- rather than dumping trash overboard, brought it onto the island in bags. Government officials, scientists and environmentalists have been stunned by the dramatic change.
While not always agreeing with each other, some watermen and women are working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to restore the oyster reefs and to expand and diversify the local economy by developing oyster farming.
Articles, talks, and a video based on Susan’s research have educated environmentalists, government officials, scientists and academics about the need to work within the value system of a community, recognize the importance of the church in resource-dependent communities and understand the power of faith in changing people's lives and attitudes toward the environment.
It is quite possible that justice and harmony will spread through communities in environmental conflict because of the witness of Christ's power to change the lives of the Tangiermen and the environmentalists amidst their conflict.
Note: This profile was adapted from an article written for Au Sable Notes, Winter 1999 by Susan Drake Emmerich.
Read more about the Tangier Island stewardship initiative in:An article in Coastal Services, November/December 2000, “Keeping the Faith: Using the Bible as the Basis for Environmental Stewardship in Virginia”
Find a video documentary about Tangier Island, Between Heaven and Earth: The Plight of the Chesapeake Watermen.