Waterman Works Chesapeake Bay, Invites Tiktok Viewers

The crew on fishing vessel Southern Girl pulls one caged wire crab pot after another out of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find a scarcity of crustaceans big enough to sell. It frustrates and worries waterman Luke McFadden — and complete strangers, too.

“I’m seeing a lot of empty nets this season man what’s going on?” one TikTok user said, commenting as they watched the 26-year-old McFadden stream his daily work to his more than 1 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 7 minutes. TikTokers banter in the comments on the video about how much it costs McFadden in fuel and supplies to go crabbing every day.

“Sheesh be positive folks!!!!!” a woman interjects. “Do you do what you love for a living??? Looks like he is winning.”

That is how McFadden sees it, doing a job he’s dreamed of since childhood.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to be too dumb to quit,” he said.

McFadden is breaking the mold in an industry that these days is dominated by older white men, most of who followed their fathers into work on the water. The Pasadena native, half Irish American and half Asian American, started crabbing full time at 18, mostly learning on the job.

He is among a dwindling group of Marylanders who make a living off the Chesapeake, as the average age of bay watermen is estimated to climb into the 60s. It has always been a difficult career, what with challenges of weather, pollution and overseas imports. Now, lackluster efforts to clean up the bay and an alarming decline in the blue crab population threaten to make it even harder to jump into the capricious Chesapeake seafood market.

McFadden is charting his course. Instead of selling his crabs to wholesalers or carryout restaurants like most other watermen, he has launched his own business, Bodkin Point Seafood, and sells directly to customers. It’s a path many younger crabbers are taking to cut out the middleman and earn more money.

But McFadden can thank an algorithm for his unique customer base. He says most of his buyers come his way after stumbling upon the videos he posts on the addictive meme machine that is TikTok.

“There’s a million crab stands,” McFadden said. “There’s only one crab guy on TikTok.”

The water has always called to McFadden. He remembers feeling its pull as a kid when he opened up a coffee-table book and saw black-and-white photos of the watermen of yore, even though he had no concept of what crabbing was. As soon as he was old enough, he’d take a small boat into creeks and go crabbing with chicken necks tied to a string. Under his photo in a school yearbook, McFadden declared plans to grow up to be a crabber.

Trouble was, unlike most aspiring watermen, there were no family footsteps for him to follow. His mother is a homemaker and his stepfather a pastor. His father, who lives in Pennsylvania, is a psychiatrist.

Waterman Luke McFadden pulls in a crab pot while checking lines. McFadden has gained more than a million followers on TikTok for his videos showing life working on the Chesapeake Bay. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Fate stepped in when his parents met CJ Canby at church and the Pasadena man told them he worked as a crabber. McFadden started spending summers on Canby’s boat at age 12. When McFadden was 18, he set out in a cheap boat of his own with a couple hundred old crab pots on loan from Canby.

“You’re not going to just get into this business and start,” Canby said. “You need help.”

It took McFadden weeks to catch and sell enough crabs to pay back the $800 he owed, he remembers. But it was his start.

His mother says she worried, but never doubted.

“It never concerned me that he wasn’t going to be able to do the work that’s required because he’s just a really hardworking individual,” said Joy Beans, who lives in Ellicott City. “He’s always pieced together 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 — a few old clips of his crab boat in action, of friends drinking, and of a dresser he was building.

The dresser has what carpenters like McFadden call an evolution door, made with panels of wood connected by swiveling hinges so that as it’s opened or closed, it looks like it’s morphing or shapeshifting. The video took off. It has more than 1.8 million views on McFadden’s TikTok page — @fvsoutherngirl, named for his boat — but countless more across the internet, where it’s been widely reposted and shared.

That got him thinking about how he could harness those eyeballs for business. He decided to keep sharing — videos of boat repairs, of all varieties of fish that turned up in his crab pots, of how to identify soft crabs and spawning crabs. Viewers were hooked.

“Everything about this is normal to me,” McFadden said. “But I didn’t really realize this entire thing is completely foreign to almost everybody.”

Many are from all over the world, and some tune into every moment McFadden broadcasts. In addition to regularly posting short clips, he often livestreams his day’s work, with an average of 100,000 viewers over a few hours.

Some are locals, like Bryant Poindexter, who visited McFadden’s crab stand on East Furnace Branch Road in Glen Burnie on a 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 plenty of crabs in his life, but stopped for a few years, frustrated by lightweight and poor-tasting ones served at a restaurant.

He was charmed by McFadden’s presentation of the crabbing process, something he had never thought or learned about, and by the crabs themselves.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to support this young guy,’” Poindexter said.

“You can literally watch me catch it and then come and buy it,” McFadden said.

Waterman Luke McFadden pilots the FV Southern Girl out of Bodkin Creek. McFadden has gained more than a million followers on TikTok for his videos showing life working on the Chesapeake Bay. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Some have speculated McFadden must be getting rich off the viewers, but he says their estimates are overblown. TikTok pays him 3.5 cents for every 1,000 views, so while his videos bring in some cash, it doesn’t go far when the overhead for a single day of crabbing is close to $1,000, he said.

Still, it’s a source of income and advertising that’s never been available to any Chesapeake waterman before. Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he hadn’t heard of McFadden or his internet fame, but commended him for it.

“He’s marketing his product,” Brown said. “With the way the economic stuff is, you’ve got to do what you can to get the most out of what you’ve got.”

Given McFadden’s youth and unorthodox entrance 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 Eastern Shore, where other economic opportunities are scarce. “If you can get a college education, you don’t go into the seafood business,” he said.

As older watermen age out of the work, the future of the profession is unclear. Brown suggested it means those left behind will have less competition for their catch. But some, like McFadden, aren’t waiting for those crabs to fall in their laps, and are leading the next generation into the future.

Ryan Mould, a 32-year-old waterman from Shady Side, said more young crabbers need to get involved in shaping the industry they will depend on. Mould has served since his 20s on state advisory committees that help craft rules for oystering and crabbing. Most of his peers on those panels are twice his age and have worked through an industry very different from the one Mould will navigate in the coming decades.

“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 huge change.”

More is coming: new restrictions are set to be imposed this year limiting for the first time the harvesting of male crabs, not just females. Mould said he isn’t happy with the rules, and wishes more young watermen would get involved in the regulation process.

The restrictions are in response to a 60% drop in the Chesapeake blue crab population over the past four years, and a record low population of male crabs, which are what most people eat. So far this season, that scarcity has been evident.

“I feel like I’ve been picking up and putting down the same crabs, waiting for them to get ripe,” McFadden said one recent morning aboard the Southern Girl.

But he is nonetheless doing what he loves, and hoping for the best. He sees crabbing as primal as hunting and gathering, something humans are programmed for and will always do. Crabbing hardly changes; just everything around it does.

And he will keep posting on TikTok. In a post Thursday, he held up a palm-sized crab too small to legally harvest, but that could be big enough later this summer. He used it to share some cause for optimism with his followers.

“We’ve been seeing a ton of these teeny, tiny, little crabs,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a glimmer of hope here.”