Water Women

Florida - July/August 2008

A tribute to female clam farmers in Cedar Key, Florida

Jeanine Beckham learned her left hand from her right by building crab traps. She still recalls one of the first lessons of the skill. “You have to start twisting the wire from the left, or the trap will buckle and become deformed.” Such are the secrets of the women who were raised crabbing and fishing the waters of Cedar Key, a small island community on the west coast of Florida. People have fished there for generations, but when commercial gillnetting was banned in 1994, they turned to clam farming, learning to read the bottom with their feet, and heaving huge bags of clams onto boats. Photographer Christian Harkness had the privilege of watching these women race their boats in and out of obscure channel markers to make a new kind of living from the water. Strong and unassuming, they are an exceptional window into a proud way of life.

“The pace here is real slow. I figure, why wear a watch when you live by the tide? Watching the water go in and out is much more appealing than looking at my wrist.” —Diana Topping

“I helped my father with shark fishing and crabbing when I was young. After the net ban, he taught me clamming, then dropped me off out in the water on a lease. It was tough, but I wanted it.” —April Reynolds

“My father died while harvesting oysters on Corrigan’s Reef when I was ten months old. My mother set a great example by being a strong water woman. She taught us how to help shuck oysters and build crab traps.” —Jeanine Beckham