BALTIMORE — The crew of the fishing vessel Southern Girl pulls one caged wire crab trap after another out of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find a shortage of shellfish large enough to sell. This frustrates and worries waterman Luke McFadden – and complete strangers too.
“I see a lot of empty nets this season man, what’s going on?” said one TikTok user, commenting as he watched McFadden, 26, stream his daily work to his more than one million followers on the video-sharing app.
Another viewer comments that he counted 12 empty crab pots coming up from the bottom of the bay in seven minutes. TikTokers joke in the comments on the video about the cost to McFadden in fuel and supplies to go crabbing every day.
“Sheesh be positive people!!!!!” a woman intervenes. “Are you doing what you love in life??? It looks like he’s winning.”
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That’s how McFadden sees it, doing a job he’s dreamed of since childhood.
“Sometimes you just have to be too stupid to quit,” he said.
McFadden breaks the mold in an industry that today is dominated by older white men, most of whom followed their fathers into work on the water. The Pasadena native, half Irish American and half Asian American, started crabbing full-time at age 18, learning mostly on the job.
He is part of a dwindling group of Marylanders who live off the Chesapeake, as the average age of bay boatmen is estimated to be 60. It has always been a difficult career, with the challenges of weather, pollution and overseas imports. Now, lackluster efforts to clean up the bay and an alarming decline in the population of blue crabs threaten to make it even harder to access Chesapeake’s temperamental seafood market.
McFadden charts his course. Instead of selling his crabs to wholesalers or take-out restaurants like most other boatmen, he started his own business, Bodkin Point Seafood, and sells directly to customers. This is a route taken by many young crabbers to cut out the middleman and make more money.
But McFadden can thank an algorithm for his unique clientele. He says most of his buyers come to him after coming across the videos he posts on the addictive meme machine that is TikTok.
“There are a million crabs,” McFadden said. “There is only one crab on TikTok.”
Water has always called McFadden. He remembers feeling his pull as a child when he opened a coffee table book and saw black and white photos of the boatmen of old, even though he had no idea what it was. was crabbing. As soon as he was old enough, he would take a small boat out into the creeks and go crabbing with chicken necks tied to a string. Beneath his picture in a school yearbook, McFadden declared his intention to become a crabber.
The problem was that, unlike most would-be boatmen, there was no family trail to follow. Her mother is a housewife and her father-in-law a pastor. Her father, who lives in Pennsylvania, is a psychiatrist.
Fate intervened when his parents met CJ Canby at church and the man from Pasadena told them he worked as a crabber. McFadden began spending his summers on Canby’s boat when he was 12 years old. When McFadden was 18, he set off in his own cheap boat with a few hundred old crab traps on loan from Canby.
“You’re not just going to jump into this business and get started,” Canby said. “You need help.”
It took weeks for McFadden to catch and sell enough crabs to pay off the $800 he owed, he recalls. But that was his start.
Her mother says she worried, but never doubted.
“It never worried me that he couldn’t do the job required because he’s just a very hardworking person,” said Joy Beans, who lives in Ellicott City. “He always found a way to make ends meet and make a living.”
TikTok was never in the plan. McFadden’s brother had gotten a few thousand views on some videos, and he wondered if he could go viral himself. He started posting some glimpses of his life last January – some old clips of his crabber boat in action, friends drinking and a chest of drawers he was building.
The dresser has what carpenters like McFadden call an evolution door, made of wooden panels connected by pivoting hinges so that when opened or closed, it appears to transform or transform. The video took off. It has more than 1.8 million views on McFadden’s TikTok page, @fvsoutherngirl – named after her boat, but countless others on the internet, where it has been widely reposted and shared.
It got him thinking about how he could exploit those eyeballs for business. He decided to keep sharing – videos of boat repairs, all the varieties of fish that ended up in his crab traps, how to identify soft crabs and spawning crabs. Viewers were won over.
“Everything about it is normal for me,” McFadden said. “But I didn’t really realize that this was all completely alien to almost everyone.”
Many come from all over the world, and some listen to every moment broadcast by McFadden. In addition to regularly posting short clips, he often livestreams his workday, averaging 100,000 viewers within hours.
Some are locals, like Bryant Poindexter, who visited McFadden’s crab stand on East Furnace Branch Road in Glen Burnie one recent afternoon. He came across McFadden on his For You page on TikTok, where an algorithm connects users to new accounts to follow and corners of the app to explore. Poindexter had eaten a lot of crabs in his life, but stopped for a few years, frustrated with the thin, bad-tasting ones served in a restaurant.
He was charmed by McFadden’s presentation of the process of crabbing, something he had never thought about or learned about, and the crabs themselves.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to support this young man,'” Poindexter said.
“You can literally watch me catch it and then come and buy it,” McFadden said.
Some have speculated that McFadden must have gotten rich from viewers, but he says their estimates are overstated. TikTok pays him 3.5 cents for 1,000 views, so while his videos make money, it doesn’t go far when the overhead for a single day of crabbing is close to $1,000, he said. declared.
Yet it is a source of revenue and publicity that has never been available to any Chesapeake boatman before. Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he hadn’t heard of McFadden or his internet fame, but praised him for it.
“He’s marketing his product,” Brown said. “With the economic situation, you have to do what you can to make the most of what you have.”
Considering McFadden’s youth and unorthodox entry into the industry, his success is all the more remarkable. Brown said young men are more likely to follow their fathers into the crabbing business on the Lower East Coast, where other economic opportunities are scarce. “If you can get a college education, you won’t get into the seafood business,” he said.
As older boatmen quit the job, the future of the profession is unclear. Brown suggested this means those who remain will have less competition for their catch. But some, like McFadden, aren’t waiting for those crabs to fall on their knees and lead the next generation into the future.
Ryan Mould, a 32-year-old sailor from Shady Side, said more young crabbers need to get involved in shaping the industry they will depend on. Mold has served since his 20s on state advisory committees that help develop rules for the oyster and crab fishery. Most of his peers on these panels are twice his age and have worked in a very different industry than the one Mold will navigate in the decades to come.
“I really think there needs to be more younger voices,” he said. “The older generation are set in their ways and they’ve seen such a change.”
More are on the way: new restrictions are expected to be imposed this year, limiting the harvest of male crabs for the first time, not just females. Mold said he was unhappy with the rules and wanted more young boatmen to get involved in the rulemaking process.
The restrictions are in response to a 60% drop in the Chesapeake blue crab population over the past four years and a record population of male crabs, which are what most people eat. So far this season, that shortage has been evident.
“I feel like I picked up and put down the same crabs, waiting for them to mature,” McFadden said a recent morning aboard the Southern Girl.
But he nevertheless does what he loves and hopes for the best. He considers crabbing as primary as hunting and gathering, something humans are programmed for and always will do. The crab barely changes; everything around it does.
And he will continue to post on TikTok. In a message this summer, he held up a palm-sized crab that’s too small to legally harvest, but could be quite large later this summer. He used it to share a cause of optimism with his followers.
“We saw a ton of these tiny little crabs,” he said. “It’s a bit of a silver lining here.”