TANGIER ISLAND, Va. (WAVY) — Legendary oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau once said “we forget the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

Those two forces collide when describing the fate of a shrinking fishing village 14 miles from the Eastern Shore — one of the last of its kind in the Chesapeake Bay. Erosion and sea level rise have already swallowed two-thirds of Tangier Island since 1850, leaving little time to save a way of life.

The Rising Tide

This one square mile patch of the past is known by the bounty of its encroaching waters.

“Tangier has the title of soft crab capital of the world,” said Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge, who mostly blames erosion for the loss of land over the decades, downplaying the effects of rising seas from climate change.

“I know we get storms,” Eskridge said. “It looks bad. We’re still losing land to erosion, all that’s goin’ on. Do not lose hope. I believe we’ll get the help we need to save the island.”

Those efforts began decades ago when the US Army Corps of Engineers built a 5,700 foot-long seawall on the island’s west side.

“And it’s working,” Eskridge said. “They did a section of it in 1989 and we were losing 25 more feet a year, and since ’89, we haven’t lost an inch. So it works.”

Federal funds helped construct a jetty near the harbor, and Eskridge still talks about a 2017 phone call that came from the White House telling him and the 400-plus residents here not to worry.

“Since the phone call with the President Donald Trump, we’ve had media here from 43 countries now,” Eskridge said.

The island draws tourists, who note the quiet air of another world.

“Nice place to come and visit, but it won’t be here forever,” said Emil Csedrick, who flew in with his wife Dorothy from northeastern Pennsylvania for a day trip. “I like it because you’re basically  trapped in a place where nobody else can get to, except the tour boats, which is fine.”  

Saving Tangier Island

David Schulte, a marine biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, has co-authored two studies on saving Tangier Island. The most recent was published in 2021. He recommends building it up with dredge material at a cost of $25 million, which would buy the island about 20 more years. A more extensive buildup to permanently save the town, Schulte estimates, would cost up to $350 million.

“We want to build right up to the shoreline, in inter-tidal, to protect shorelines that are getting eroded away,” Schulte said. “Tangier is where we want to do this for the first time. The problem the island really has now, on top of the erosion, is the water table’s coming up so high, they’re flooding the island, the inhabited part is really getting bad.”

It’s so bad that studies estimate if nothing is done, Tangier Island could be uninhabitable in less than 30 years.

“We’re in a mess,” said waterman Donald Thorne, 68. “Tide rises during storms, comes over this area, then you can’t get out the creek because it’s so low.”

Thorne offers a direct solution, spoken in the unique Tangier dialect imported from Cornwall, England in the 1600s.

“All we need is rocks,” Thorne said. “If somebody just gave us a load of rocks, put it around the island. Fill it in with dirt, and then leave us be”

“Tangier is very savable,” Eskridge said. “And it can be done.”

The plight of Tangier Island has been making some small waves in Washington, D.C. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have secured $500,000 next year for the Army Corps of Engineers to continue its work on Tangier.

“Hopefully that report will be positive, and then they’ll recommend construction,” said Schulte, who also laments that small communities like Tangier Island are at a disadvantage when seeking help.

“Cities like Miami, who have very expensive shorefront properties that are getting affected by flooding, are more likely to get help than a town like Tangier that doesn’t have the valuable real estate and large population,” Schulte said.

And Mayor Eskridge said time is running out.

“They’ve already done enough studies to protect the island two to three times over.”

Previous Coverage

Seven years ago, WAVY’s Tom Schaad visited Tangier Island for his first in-depth report on the disappearing Virginia treasure.

Here are links to that and subsequent reports: