Issue: July 2001
The State of Our Bay: The Incredible Shrinking Crab

Yes, it’s our Bay. We’ve chosen that phrase quite deliberately, because it suggests not only pride and proprietorship, but also responsibility. And for this first installment of what will be an annual Chesapeake Bay health report, that strikes us as a good message to open with - move the vocabulary away from they and toward we. As in, “What are we doing about the recent decline in blue crabs?” Or, “How are we going to handle the millions of tons of extra silt that will flow into the Bay when the Susquehanna River dams can no longer hold it back?” It’s a powerful word, we is.

    But that’s quite enough preaching, and you’ll find no more of it in the pages that follow - at least not from us. Rather, we offer articles on each of the foregoing questions, an essay on a relatively new index system for measuring the Bay’s recovery, and commentary from some of the key warriors in the battle to save the Chesapeake. Our Chesapeake, that is.

 

 

After nearly a decade of significant declines in the blue crab harvest, Maryland, Virginia and Potomac River authorities fitfully rein in the crabbers - watermen and chicken-neckers alike.

 

    Of all the comments made in the great crab debate of the last six months, as regulators, politicians, scientists and watermen bickered over proposed harvest restrictions for this season, perhaps the most telling was that of Kirby Carpenter, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. “We didn’t mean to be first,” Carpenter told the Baltimore Sun in early April, after the PRFC had voted to shorten the Potomac crabbing season, reduce crab pots and restrict recreational crabbing. “We scheduled our hearings for the last week in March,” he said, “anticipating that Maryland and Virginia would have acted by then.”

    Indeed, back in February, when it seemed that both states would enact harvest restrictions with little fuss, that was not an unreasonable expectation on the PRFC’s part. A month earlier, the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee had announced its long-awaited findings (that the crab’s reproductive potential might indeed be teetering on the brink) and had made its recommendations: chiefly, reduce the harvest by at least 15 percent in order to double the crab’s “spawning stock.” And for most of the winter, as regulators considered the options and aired them at public hearings, the political will to adopt harvest restrictions seemed strong in all three jurisdictions. Strong enough, at least, for an incremental approach - a five-percent reduction each year until 2003. By March, however, that political will had begun to dissolve, in direct proportion to the flood tide of dissent from watermen. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission was the first to blink; after facing a dozen angry watermen at a March 20 hearing, and having no consensus from its own advisory committee, the panel decided to table the subject until Maryland had made its move.

    Strictly speaking, Maryland had made its move. After several months of hearings, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had resolved to limit crabbers to an eight-hour work day, tighten the rules for the existing six-day work week, and prohibit the use of under-size male crabs as bait for peelers. And the Maryland General Assembly had all but hammered out the state’s first “chicken-necker” law, limiting recreational crabbers to one bushel of crabs per day and requiring a license for daily catches of more than two dozen hard crabs or one dozen soft-shells or peelers. No such bill was required for the proposed commercial restrictions, which are in DNR’s domain. But in order to be put into effect by the opening of crabbing season (April 1), they would have to be considered “emergency” regulations and as such would need the approval of the General Assembly’s Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee. And it was there that Maryland’s political will eventually faltered.

    As in Virginia, the specter of curtailed work hours drew heavy fire from watermen - heavier, in fact, than even the most jaded observers had expected. Two Eastern Shore watermen groups, the Blue Crab Conservation Coalition and the Save the Crabbers Coalition, mobilized against the proposed restrictions. And, in late March, Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association (and a member of the bi-state advisory committee), formally withdrew his group’s support of the DNR proposal. Watermen, he said, are not the only culprits in the crab’s decline and therefore should not be the only ones asked to do something about it. “We want a commitment from everyone from the Governor on down that something will be done besides hit the watermen,” Simns wrote in the organization’s monthly publication, the Waterman’s Gazette. “Until we see that commitment, we must oppose any new regulations.” When he announced his group’s opposition to the new rules, Simns considered the protest purely symbolic; the General Assembly’s review committee, he guessed, would approve the new rules in any case. He wasn’t alone in thinking this, so he wasn’t alone in being wrong; several weeks later the committee surprised everyone, and dismayed many, by rejecting the regulations in a 6-4 vote.

    This was hardly the end of the matter. On the very same day, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission decided it could no longer wait out Maryland and voted to close the Virginia fishery on 12 consecutive Wednesdays this summer. The commission also reduced the daily catch limit for winter dredgers from 20 to 17 barrels, and imposed limits on recreational crabbing. And back in Annapolis DNR officials made it clear that the legislative snub was only a temporary setback. DNR in fact has the authority to change fishery regulations with only the governor’s approval; and within days of the legislators’ vote, an angry Parris N. Glendening announced that he would indeed approve the new regulations. They would go into effect, he said, on or about the 23rd of this month - the earliest date possible on the administrative track, which calls for more thorough reviews and more public hearings. Furthermore, to make up for the lost time, Glendening ordered the season closed Nov. 1, a month earlier than usual.

 

    While the debate over the need for and extent of crabbing restrictions seems virtually irresolvable, one fact is not in dispute: Last year’s harvest of callinectes sapidus was alarmingly small, particularly in Maryland waters. The 2000 catch in Maryland, according to the DNR, was a dismal 21 million pounds - barely more than a third of the 57 million pounds caught in 1993, after which a steady decline began. Virginia has not come close to its near-record 1993 catch of 50 million-plus pounds, although since 1994 the harvest figures there have been steadier, hovering in the neighborhood of 30 million pounds.

    The obvious decline in Maryland, however, was enough to prompt the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission to create a crab task force - the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee. After studying the problem for two years, the committee determined, among other things, that “reproductive potential of crabs may be compromised due to the smaller size and lower abundance of mature males and females.”

    The committee’s 10-point action plan, released last December and adopted by the commission in January, contains more than a dollop of impenetrable committee-speak and cryptic crab math, but the short-term goals are clear enough: All jurisdictions should immediately adopt both minimum and ideal levels of “spawning potential” in the crab population (10 and 20 percent of the estimated stock, respectively), and do so by reducing the harvest by 15 percent. The plan also calls for a bottom threshold for the entire population, setting that number at the lowest known level from which the species can recover - that of 1968, when the Maryland catch fell to some 10 million pounds. (That number cannot be compared to current harvest figures, because the state’s reporting system was revamped in 1982. But 1968 was clearly a crash year; the harvest plummeted to a third of the average catch for the previous decade.)

    As might be expected, since the bi-state advisory committee includes watermen and others in the Bay seafood industry, the action plan also addresses some of the main points of contention between the regulators and the regulated. It encourages, for instance, “equitable [harvest] reductions in all components of the recreational and commercial sectors” - a suggestion that was clearly aimed at putting at least some of the conservational onus on recreational crabbers, and all three jurisdictions took the hint. (The recreational harvest remains a wild card, since it has never been reliably measured. Depending on whom you ask, the number may be inconsequential, or it may rival the commercial take.) The advisory committee’s plan also calls for increased efforts to study other negative influences on crabs, such as reduced habitat (underwater grasses), poor water quality and predation by rockfish. The latter is a particularly sore point among many crabbers, who say it’s no coincidence that the crab’s population trend is inversely proportionate to that of the rockfish. The now-plentiful rock does indeed dine on juvenile crabs, and some scientists say this may be a factor, especially given the decline of the fish’s preferred meal: menhaden. Others say rockfish are merely opportunists when it comes to young crabs and do not present a significant threat - especially when compared with human predation.

    And so goes the debate, which will no doubt continue this summer - and perhaps even escalate, as will crab prices if the harvest remains lackluster. As this issue went to press, early in the season, hard crab prices had picked up roughly where they left off last year: $20 to $50 per dozen, depending on location and crab size.

    Those things too are part of the big, messy picture - how much we’re willing to pay and how deeply the crab is embedded in our summer culture. Price alone may have a dampening effect on human predation. Or it may not, at least not at this level. Like everything else, it’s a matter of informed guesswork. Even the most knowledgeable student of the blue crab will admit that pure biology and head counts and age class formulas will tell you only so much about this short-lived, far-ranging creature. So the scientists and regulators will continue to filter their data through educated conjecture. The watermen will keep pulling up their pots and tightening their budgets. And the rest of us will hold our collective breath and hope for one of two things: that the crabbers are right and this is only a natural dip in the creature’s population cycle; or, if they’re wrong, that it isn’t too late to put the beautiful swimmer back on its stroke.