Washing away | Climate change threatens Virginia town, history

Photo by Hiba Ahmad
Photo by Hiba Ahmad
Photo by Hiba Ahmad
Photo by Hiba Ahmad

Fourteen miles off the coast of Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay lies Tangier Island, a quiet island that’s home to roughly 450 residents. But with rising sea levels and land erosion, the island is set to disappear into the bay by 2050, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Tangier is approximately 1.2 square miles in size and has been a victim to land erosion for decades. David Schulte, an environmental specialist from the Army Corps of Engineers, has been studying the island for more than a decade and said that Tangier is the “most dire situation” he’s seen.

“(Tangier) is one of the first sites in America that is getting severely impacted by rising sea levels,” Schulte said. “Enough that you actually have to consider moving the town in the near future.”

According to Mayor James Eskridge, the island continued to lose dozens of feet off its shoreline every year until a sea wall, designed to stop sediment erosion, was erected in the 1970s.

In order to deter any further land loss, Eskridge said he hopes the island can secure state or federal government funding to build more seawalls along the other ends of the island.

“We’re in need of help and we’re hoping that we’ll get that help before it’s too late,” Eskridge said.

However, the funding may be difficult to obtain after President Donald Trump announced a 30 percent cut in federal funding to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA also provides funding for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – a key player in Tangier’s hopes of building more protective seawalls. CBF will suffer a 73 million dollar cut, therefore the foundation will unlikely be able to begin new projects in the near future.

According to the U.S. Census, Tangier’s population peaked in the 1930s when an upwards of 1,100 people inhabited the island. As of 2017, residents say the population is no more than 450 to 500 people. 

Though Tangier’s environmental turmoil has caused some residents to leave, Eskridge said it’s the government’s regulations from the 1980s on crabbing, fishing and oysters that continue to be the driving force behind the Island’s dwindling population.

“Of course you need regulations,” Eskridge said. “But you have to balance it out because you can regulate people out of business.”

Fishing, crabbing and oysters has served as the backbone to Tangier’s economy for generations. Watermen, those who make a living off of the water, sell their individual catches to local markets in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Milton Parks, a lifetime Tangier resident, said he used to be able to catch an upwards of 100 bushels of crabs a day; now, he brings home about 27.

“The best fishermen on the bay live here, but they’re limited to what they can do,” Parks said.  

Tangier’s residents are hopeful the Trump administration will be able to help curb what they consider “crippling regulations.”

Just last month, President Trump signed four bills under the Congressional Review Act that would eliminate any regulations or rules that harm job growth in the United States.

“Any regulation that is outdated, unnecessary, bad for workers, or contrary to the national interest will be scrapped,” President Trump said in a statement released by the White House.

As an alternative to the decrease in water-related jobs, islanders have taken up tug-boating instead. However, it’s not enough to keep young adults on the island.

Cameron Evans, a junior in high school, said another contributing factor to the island’s decreasing population are the students who graduate and attend college on the mainland.

“I like to work on the water, but it’s just not a steady job,” Evans said. “People make money all the time doing it, but it’s not guaranteed every day.”

The problems that plague Tangier are not easily remedied, but Eskridge continues to urge the island’s citizens to stay resilient.

“I don’t want to lose hope, that’s what I tell the citizens,” Eskridge said. “Never lose hope, because if you lose hope then all is lost.”

This report was the result of team coverage between The Commonwealth Times & VCU InSight, an award-winning student led newscast taught through the Richard T. Robertson School of Media & Culture. 


hibaheadshot-1Hiba Ahmad
Hiba is a senior studying broadcast journalism and religious studies. In addition to writing for the CT, she is the campus editor-at-large for the Huffington Post, a reporter for VCU InSight and president of United Muslim Relief at VCU. This summer, Hiba interned with the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C. She previously interned with Voice for America and as a web content intern for VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
Facebook | LinkedIn | ahmadh@commonwealthtimes.org

1 Comment

  1. Outstanding job. Thanks to all of you who did such fine work reporting on Tangier and how it’s people are being affected by climate change.

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