Get unlimited digital access to $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Op-Eds

Reversing the crab collapse [Commentary]

The recent bad news on the serious decline in female blue crabs (" May 1) and the subsequent editorial ("Singing the blues," May 5) calling for much tighter harvest restrictions should be a wake-up call for all who care about the Chesapeake Bay. The winter dredge survey found one of the lowest crab levels in 25 years of sampling. The harvest in 2013 was the lowest in more than 20 years.

At the root of this decline are two factors: overharvest and poor environmental conditions. Of course, natural fluctuations occur in populations and are linked to weather and predatory shifts, but long-term declines are greatly influenced by harvest and pollution.

The state's oyster population is still less than 1 percent of levels a century ago even after announced increases in 2013; shad populations collapsed in the 20th century, and all shad fishing has been banned for more than three decades; and the soft-shell clam fishery has also collapsed, after a peak in the early 1960s.

Fishing pressure has shifted to crabs. As their stocks dwindle, crab prices skyrocket and crabbing pressure increases.

So, how do we safeguard the last major fishery left in the Chesapeake? First, we need to focus on what we can immediately control and significantly reduce harvest pressure to allow crab stocks to recover, and we need to do it now in cooperation with Virginia. The Sun suggests a quota system as has been used for commercial rockfish. Much tighter limits on both females and male crabs must be implemented.

Any new restrictions must go well beyond a proposed 10 percent drop in female harvest pressure near the end of the season. While I do not support Dan Rodricks' call for a total moratorium ("It's time to stop tinkering and just ban crabbing for one year May 3), I would note that the moratorium on rockfish harvest and possession in 1985 saved that fishery and allowed a remarkable recovery after five years.

We also need to re-double our efforts to improve water quality, especially from agricultural and stormwater runoff pollution. Excess nutrients from farm fertilizers and millions of pounds of manure produce 58 percent of the phosphorus and 44 percent of the nitrogen flowing to the bay. These nutrients choke our river systems and cause dead zones while the excessive algal blooms they create lead to declines in bay grasses.

Sediment flowing from farm fields smothers oyster bars and bottom dwelling organisms in the food chain for crabs and other critters. Sediment flows also lead to declines in bay grasses. Agriculture is responsible for 59 percent of this excess sediment.

Polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas also affects bay health. Such polluted storwmater runoff is linked to 17 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen flowing to the bay and 25 percent of the sediment.

Bay grasses are essential as crab nurseries, and they trap and absorb nutrient and sediment pollution. In 2012, underwater grasses declined to lows last reported in 1986. Despite an increase in 2013, such grasses remain at very low levels — only 32 percent of the 185,000-acre goal agreed upon in 2000.

We are effectively managing nutrients from sewage treatment plants through the Flush Tax, which will generate $1.4 billion to clean 95 percent of all wastewater flow. But Maryland's portion of the bay remains severely degraded.

That's because we are failing miserably to clean-up agricultural and stormwater pollution, and the political will to address these major nonpoint pollution sources is lacking. Science-based regulations to limit manure on farm fields already saturated with phosphorus were withdrawn by the O'Malley administration, and the legislature has acted to delay such necessary regulations.

Large poultry and livestock operations are not properly regulated as 30 percent — or 169 large operations — still do not have required state permits to control polluted runoff from their chicken houses or feedlots. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) blamed the lack of sufficient personnel to comply with the law, even though the agency failed to collect $400,000 from these large manure permit holders in mandated fees in 2013.

The proper enforcement of the weaker-than-needed manure regulations is close to non-existent.

On polluted stormwater, The Sun reported on the failure of MDE to review local governments' enforcement of existing stormwater laws for new development which "could lead to lax enforcement on the local level — and put efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay at risk" ("Bay advocates say state lax in monitoring county stormwater controls Jan. 3). Many elected officials have mocked the modest stormwater fee legislation designed to reduce pollution from this source. These same officials present no real ideas how to raise the more than $5 billion the state says is needed.

Perhaps politicians will one day grasp the connection between failing to properly regulate farm pollution and stormwater runoff and the plight of crabs and watermen. Unless we fully address these pollutant sources, it is the working watermen who will suffer as crabs decline and must be further restricted.

Gerald W. Winegrad is a former Maryland state senator who sponsored or managed much of the bay legislation of the 1980s and early 1990s and has taught graduate courses on the Chesapeake Bay. His email is

To respond to this commentary, send an email to Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Flying Dog's Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale now available
    Flying Dog's Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale now available

    In honor of Old Bay's 75th anniversary, Frederick-based Flying Dog Brewery collaborated with the Maryland seasoning company to create Dead Rise Summer Ale. The seasonal beer is available now until Labor Day. 

  • Charter schools are a solution in search of a problem

    New efforts to change Maryland's charter school law, buoyed by a recent report from the Abell Foundation, appear to be a solution in search of a problem. Maryland is among the best states in academic performance and achievement. The public school system here has been applauded by observers...

  • Why Greeks should dump the euro
    Why Greeks should dump the euro

    By electing left-wing Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras to be premier, Greeks voted to end the draconian economic measures imposed by Germany and other international lenders. After the dust settles, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will either backpedal on the austerity imposed on Athens or...

  • Obama faces reality
    Obama faces reality

    Perhaps six years too late, President Barack Obama gave strong indications in his State of the Union address last week that he's finally bought into Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  • A path forward for responsible gas shale regulations
    A path forward for responsible gas shale regulations

    Editor's note: This piece has been updated with the author's correct email address. 

  • Jews, outnumbered by Muslims, suffer under mob rule
    Jews, outnumbered by Muslims, suffer under mob rule

    In the wake of the terrorist attack on a kosher market in Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked French Jews to come home.