A Virginia crab-fishing island fights to stay afloat

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
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
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
Residents of Tangier Island opposed slavery and resisted Virginia’s decision to join the slave-holding Confederacy during the Civil War (1861-1865)
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
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
Most Tangier residents are self-employed – per capita income on the island fell by 13% between 2000 and 2016
Homeownership is virtually ubiquitous on Tangier Island, but property values are just 37% of statewide values
Tangier has one grocery store and one clinic, which provide basic essentials, but many goods and services are only available on the mainland
Tangier’s only school educates 60 students, ages 5 to 18
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
Due to its small size, Tangier has very few cars – most residents use golf carts or bicycles to get around the island
Tangier Island is a prized habitat for many species of birds, including several species that are very rare in North America
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
Tangier’s population today is 450, compared with a peak of 1,500 in the early 20th Century
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
Two neighborhoods are already submerged, displacing residents to still-liveable areas of the island
The US Army further contributed to displacement on Tangier, by seizing residents’ land in the 1960s for use as a missile testing site
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
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
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
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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