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Reversing the crab collapse [Commentary]

Laws and LegislationEnvironmental PollutionAquacultureCredit and Debt

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 gwwabc@comcast.net.

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

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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