Reflections Off WaterWomen

The Reasons for the Book

     This book is a personal biography of the waterwomen of Cedar Key.  My vision of the waterwomen is reflected in my photographs.  Their vision is reflected in their stories.
     As strong a statement as the photographs make alone, they are subjective and one sided, thus require the unfiltered voices of the waterwomen to make them whole. 
     Some of the striking things about these women are that they live in a small, and still relatively isolated community.  Their work is extremely hard, and often lonely.  They are their own bosses. They are not getting rich.  They work at jobs that the vast majority of the people in this country don't even know exists.  Their work is not without danger,  they probably don't have health insurance and there is no clinic or doctor in the community, the nearest hospital is 60 miles away. 
     They write about all this, and what it is like to be out on the Gulf of Mexico, in their own boat, in charge of their own life,  what it means to be part of a small community where very little of what goes on seems to be a private matter, where everybody knows the stupid things you did in seventh grade, and yesterday.  They talk about the water, their boats, their families, and how it all comes together.
     Their stories are not interviews, which by their very questions would slant the information, but rather, stories straight from the women's hearts.
     It was easy for me to become interested in the women.  They are radiant, intelligent and special  in a very unassuming way.  It was not easy for me to figure out that there was such a  thing as waterwomen in Cedar Key, nobody singled them out as such, and they did not call themselves that.  Even though I spent a lot of time on the water, I hardly ever encountered them on the Gulf.  I did not know who they were, or what exactly it was they did.  I would catch a glimpse of one or two of them as they scooted by on their skiffs, or I would see one waitressing or working in one of the many other jobs they did in order to make a living. 
     Waterwomen certainly do not think of themselves as being unique, or being special.  If you grew up in Cedar Key, you were connected to the water, and it was no big deal. 
     I thought it was an incredibly  big deal.  Going out on the water with one of them at the wheel, racing by obscure channel markers, turning at the last second, the woman with one hand on the wheel, one hand around a coffee cup, perhaps a cigarillo between her teeth, hair flying in the wind - tell me it wasn't a big deal.  The big deal is the way these women are unique.
     This collection of photographs, personal essays, stories, poems, and lyrics asks questions and discusses ideas.  It opens our eyes to a different way of living and being in our modern world.  It is a wonderful gift from the waterwomen of Cedar Key to the reader. 


     Many of the waterwomen come from families who have lived, worked, and fished on these islands and waters for generations.  Some of them were new to Cedar Key, and some of them only passed through.  Nevertheless, all of them are connected to the heritage of these waters, these keys, and this culture.  A culture which goes back if only in spirit, to the native Americans who inhabited this coastline for centuries, and who lived as much on the Gulf as on the land.
For decades, Cedar Key, Florida was a small fishing community and a somewhat quaint tourist destination  atop some  scattered keys, three miles out into the northern Gulf of Mexico.
     During the 1800's  Cedar Keys - as it was called then - was a significant, and populated Florida port.  A hurricane,  a major fire, declining natural resources, shifting rail lines, and changing times all  contributed to turning Cedar Key into an obscure, isolated and difficult to reach community.  The local population declined.  The Florida land boom of the 1920's did not reach here, and the small community got by with fishing, oystering, and crabbing.  The post World War II boom also did little to change the economic reality of life in Cedar Key. While the streets were finally paved in the 1960's, it still remained isolated enough to serve as a training site for the newly formed Peace Corps.
      The constant, even with its natural ups and downs, was the commercial fishing industry.  It gave the fishermen, and through them, the population in general, a purpose and a free and independent way of life, regulated by the winds, the tides, and the fish, but not by bosses, pay checks, or time-cards. 
 While the influence of tourism slowly rose in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's, the jobs still were minimal, and the wages minimum. Fishing remained the defining industry, occupation, and calling. Since net fishing and oystering from small boats requires enormous upper body strength, women were rarely working on the water.  They either stayed home, did fishing related jobs such as cleaning fish and shucking oysters, waitressed, or worked for minimum wages in the tourist motels and restaurants.
     While nobody 'got rich,' fishermen and their families were proud of their heritage and independence.  Then the impossible happened. 
In 1994, the voters of Florida, encouraged by the interests of sports fishermen and the boating industry, passed a constitutional amendment to ban inshore net fishing, even from boats as small as those of the Cedar Key fishermen.
     After the passage of the ban, the mood in Florida's fishing communities was one of anger, frustration, desperation and depression.  Never wealthy, fishermen had always chosen their independence over money.  Now they were out of work and might have to work for a boss,  'pound nails', or work at menial jobs in the tourist industry.
     In Cedar Key, some farsighted fishing families had begun exploring the possibilities of employing aquaculture techniques to raise shellfish long before the possibility of a net ban arose.  First they tried oysters, but that did not work out.  Then they experimented with clams, and that showed promises. 
     Women seemed to be the first ones to comprehend the economic possibilities of clam farming, and they made up the bulk of the participants in the first clam farming workshop.  The fishermen were not that interested, they were fighting the proposed net ban amendment, and confident of winning.
      When the net ban did become law, the Florida Legislature appropriated money to assist in retraining fishermen.  As a part of the retraining effort, clam farming was systematically introduced into Cedar Key and other Florida fishing communities, and this time, the out-of-work net fishermen took notice.
     Because of Florida's immense coastline, maritime activities have always played a significant part in the state's history.  However, because of the state's rapid growth and overreaching tourist economy, working on the water for other than tourism related activities was becoming rare.  Now, with net fishing gone, even fewer genuine watermen remained.  Clam farming seemed to be a way to continue working on the water, with a new twist, women would play a significant part in this 'fishing' industry.
     Despite all this history and all this community and conntectedness, waterwomen may only be a briefly passing phenomena, for their future is in doubt.

Next:    Preliminary Table of Contents