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From Virginia, another idea for reversing crab decline

Credit and DebtConsumer Goods IndustriesChesapeake Bay FoundationVirginia Marine Resources Commission

The latest idea for pulling Chesapeake blue crabs back from the brink of disaster — a fascinating and frustrating subject about which everyone seems to have an opinion — comes from the watermen who harvest and sell crabs in the Virginia end of the bay.

They've asked the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to give each commercial crabber an annual catch limit and let him crab whenever and wherever he wants, with no seasonal restrictions, until he reaches his maximum haul for the year. The individual limits would be based on the total annual harvest that fisheries managers consider sustainable.

The watermen who proposed this want to eliminate the pressure to catch their share of crabs within a short period of time, a practice they say leads to the harvest of too many egg-bearing females. They say it would also give more crabs a greater chance to grow, bringing better prices for bigger crabs at the dock.

Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Waterman's Association, is a member of the Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel, which made the recommendation this summer. Here's how he explains it: "Instead of fishing for everything that swims and trying to catch maximum limits, give watermen an annual limit, and we will fish when the profit margin is the greatest. Let us fish for dollars, not volume."

Pardon me for asking, but how does that bring the Chesapeake blue crab population back from the brink of collapse?

"Seventy percent of what we catch down here are females," Smith says. "This could let us fish longer in the year to get the higher-price crab, crabs that bring higher market value, and the ones that are not carrying eggs."

It sounds wise. Eliminate seasonal restrictions and the pressure to make your max catch by a certain date, and maybe the Chesapeake gets a more discerning crabber and more females producing babies.

But having Maryland-hewn skepticism about Virginia watermen, I had to ask if Smith's group also wanted the state to lift its ban on winter dredging for crabs. That's a controversial practice that Virginia only stopped in 2008, after the federal government declared the fishery a disaster. By then, the crab population had fallen from about 790 million in 1990 to 260 million, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Smith says winter dredging is not what the Virginians want right now.

What they want, he says, is more time to harvest in a way that leaves more egg-bearing females in the bay.

It's commendable that Virginia watermen are finally facing facts about the troubling decline of crabs. They are also calling for online reporting of daily harvests and an assessment of the effect that two other consumer groups — invasive blue catfish and recreational crabbers — have on crab numbers.

But Smith and his colleagues will find in Virginia what we have here in Maryland — scientists and officials who believe severe winters and loss of habitat are more to blame for the crab's decline than the harvest by humans.

"The crab fishery is being responsibly managed," John Bull, the Virginia fisheries commissioner, told the Daily Press in Newport News, disagreeing with the notion that major changes are needed.

I assume Bull would oppose a moratorium — as I've suggested a couple of times — to give the crabs a complete break from harvest.

Intuition suggests a moratorium, even a year or two, might be a good idea. Scientists say otherwise.

As reported in this column Thursday: When they consider all factors — life cycle of the female crab, weather conditions, predation, habitat loss, harvest limits, the scope of the regional seafood economy — Maryland scientists conclude a moratorium would do more harm than good. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation agrees, according to its president and CEO, Will Baker.

Crabs are not like rockfish, which rebounded after a moratorium on the catch in the 1980s. Crabs are a lot more complex, and rebuilding their Chesapeake stock is far more challenging. A crab moratorium, scientists say, would not guarantee the relatively quick fix that intuition suggests.

Crabs are part of a huge seafood industry in Maryland and Virginia; we take millions of bushels of them out of the bay every year. Scientists believe we can sustain that without a moratorium, and in time we'll see if they are correct.

If overfishing is not the problem, you might want to just chalk up the crab decline to natural explanations. But we don't get off that easy.

Harsh winters and other extreme weather events that kill crabs by the ton are becoming more frequent; climate change is real and directly related to human activity. Chesapeake grasses, prime habitat for crabs, are only at 20 percent of their historic levels, according to the bay foundation.

Sorry, but we don't get to blame that on invasive catfish.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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