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Watermen Find Bliss On The Bay Despite Challenges

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Robert T. Brown (right) hauls his pound net out of the water with the help of his crew.
Jonathan Wilson
Robert T. Brown (right) hauls his pound net out of the water with the help of his crew.

Robert T. Brown eases his 42-foot, bay-built fishing boat away from his property along St. Patrick's Creek in St. Mary's County.

The 63-year-old Brown, or Robert T., as his friends call him, is headed about five miles out toward the mouth of the Potomac River, to check on one of his fishing nets.

And if you think 63 sounds a little old for a commercial fisherman, you're right. But the number isn't far off. Brown is only a few years above the average age of a Maryland waterman. He says there are just not many young people signing up for a job that guarantees hard manual labor but doesn't offer health insurance.

"It's tough. It's a hard way — if you're not really raised on the water — and get it really in your blood," he says. "There's not really nobody else going into it."

Brown says being a waterman is even tougher than it was when he got started on his own, about 40 years ago. But looking for another line of work just isn't an option.

"I've got a high school education, where am I going to go?" Brown asks. "Who wants somebody that's 63 years old who has no other experience than what we've done 'round here in the water business? You don't have no other choice, really."

Brown's energy is remarkable for his age... and he shows no signs of slowing down, or even becoming bitter about new regulations or the ever-present threat of pollution.

Mick Blackistone, executive director of the Maryland Waterman's Association (Brown is the new president of the group) says the secret to how watermen like Brown stay positive isn't really a secret at all.

"They don't want to do anything else," Blackistone says, "that's the secret."

But ask Brown about his children, and you can sense that he does see the end of a long line of Brown watermen on the horizon.

He says both of his sons love working on the water, but simply can't afford to make a living without benefits like health insurance and retirement. One son has children of his own to support, and has a good job with Verizon.

"He's planning on coming back when he retires," he says. "That's what you're looking at — there's a lot of people throughout the state who have had to leave the seafood industry and get a job."

And that's just it: being a waterman isn't a job — it's a way of life. And it's a way of life that Robert T. Brown isn't about to give up... no matter what the changing tides bring.

[Music: "Black Water" by Pickin' On Series from Classic Rock Relaxation]

Photos: Watermen


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