A Virginia crab-fishing island fights to stay afloat

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Virginia’s Tangier Island sits in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary, where 150 rivers empty into the North Atlantic
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The island is only accessible by boat and by air – when the Bay freezes during winter months, Tangier’s small airport is its only connection to the mainland
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The isolated island is mainly populated by the descendants of five families, who speak a unique dialect of English passed down from 17th-Century British settlers
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Residents of Tangier Island opposed slavery and resisted Virginia’s decision to join the slave-holding Confederacy during the Civil War (1861-1865)
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The economy is dependent on small-scale fishing of crabs and oysters, which are sold for consumption in nearby cities, including Washington DC and Baltimore
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Tangier “watermen” begin working before dawn to catch an average 400 crabs per day, but this livelihood is increasingly under threat from pollution and overfishing which harm the crab population
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Most Tangier residents are self-employed – per capita income on the island fell by 13% between 2000 and 2016
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Homeownership is virtually ubiquitous on Tangier Island, but property values are just 37% of statewide values
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Tangier has one grocery store and one clinic, which provide basic essentials, but many goods and services are only available on the mainland
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Tangier’s only school educates 60 students, ages 5 to 18
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Tangier students are strong academically, with 80% proficiency in English and 70% in math – meeting statewide averages – but only 15% of students take a college entrance exam
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Due to its small size, Tangier has very few cars – most residents use golf carts or bicycles to get around the island
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Tangier Island is a prized habitat for many species of birds, including several species that are very rare in North America
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Alcohol is not sold on Tangier Island, and church plays an important role in community life: in an infamous 1920 incident, the local policeman shot and wounded a 17-year-old because he wasn’t in church on Sunday morning — the policeman served one year in prison before being pardoned by Virginia’s governor
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Tangier’s population today is 450, compared with a peak of 1,500 in the early 20th Century
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Since the mid-1800s, Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land to erosion and rising sea levels, moreover the island has suffered three hurricanes in the last 17 years
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Two neighborhoods are already submerged, displacing residents to still-liveable areas of the island
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The US Army further contributed to displacement on Tangier, by seizing residents’ land in the 1960s for use as a missile testing site
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Amid predictions that their island could be underwater by 2050, Tangier residents have been fighting for construction of a seawall — a project approved by the federal government in the 1980s — to stop further land loss
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To raise awareness of their situation, Tangier’s mayor, a professional fisherman, has given interviews to journalists from 22 countries and has personally spoken with the US President
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In 2018, after nearly 30 years of delays, the federal government and the Virginia state government agreed to begin work on a $2.6 million barrier to protect Tangier’s harbor from further erosion
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The barrier is expected to be completed in 2019, but engineers say it is an incomplete solution and Tangier will need a more sophisticated $30 million seawall to be fully protected

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