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Crab outlook gloomier than Md. officials imply

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What is the real story on the health of the bay's blue crabs?

"They're back, they're fat and the prices are falling -- enjoy."

That was the message Marylanders got from an ill-advised, state-sponsored news conference June 16. The event was a sop to seafood processors, who think media stories of crab scarcity are why people didn't buy their crabs over Memorial Day. (Could $100-plus-per-bushel prices have had a role?)

The Department of Natural Resources staged the show with good intentions, thinking to leaven it with longer-term concerns about overfishing of crabs. But the DNR, responsible for managing the bay's crabs, came across looking more like salesman than conservator.

Next week, however, the agency is giving a more complete and worrisome account in public meetings around the state. The 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. sessions will be held Monday at Essex Community College, Tuesday at the Department of Agriculture in Annapolis, and Wednesday at the Charles County Government Center in La Plata.

I recommend the briefings, which admirably pull together, for the first time, a wealth of recent information on the state of the crab. While these are not formal hearings on proposed regulations, they are a prelude. A line from DNR's briefing document for the meetings sums it up:

"If stock abundance continues to decline, or even if it remains at its current low level, the bay jurisdictions must consider options to reduce fishing mortality."

In other words, "We're crabbing too hard, and we've got to ease up."

Consider the evidence, first presented this week in Salisbury at a meeting filled mostly with commercial crabbers.

It may seem strange to many people that the actual crab catch is not what most interests fisheries scientists, although for years that is all they had to go on.

Catches don't reflect what is out there so much as how many people are fishing, how hard they are fishing; also weather, markets and other variables.

A better indicator is what gets caught relative to a fisherman's effort; in one long-term study, the pounds of crabs per crab pot has fallen dramatically: from around 40 pounds to 20 to 25 pounds between 1984 and 1993.

Crabbers seem to be responding by using more crab pots.

From 1984 to 1990, the average number of pots per crabber was fairly stable, between 100 and 200 each; then, it leaped to 200 to 300 by 1994.

And the average number of crab pots being fished throughout the Maryland bay also jumped, from 95,000 from 1984 to 1990, to 130,000 in the last few years.

Also, the ratio of crabbers using more than 500 pots jumped, from about 5 percent in 1991 to nearly 30 percent in 1994.

It also appears that crab potters are focusing more on catching pregnant females.

These are the "sooks," adult females that have made their final molt, have mated and are migrating in the fall toward the bay's mouth, where most blue crabs spawn.

Studies find that more than 95 percent of these sooks have been impregnated;so even though they do not yet have a spongy egg mass protruding from the abdomen, they are virtually all likely to reproduce -- up to 8 million eggs -- if not caught.

Such crabs traditionally have made up about 25 percent of Maryland's hardcrab catch; but in the last couple years the sook catch jumped to around 40 percent.

Males -- "jimmy" crabs -- are not usually as great a concern as females, because one of the former can impregnate many of the latter;but the jimmies also are showing signs of stress. A 30-year study of crab pots off Calvert Cliffs shows that the average size of males has fallen by 10 percent, and average weight by 20 percent; and males make up only 40 percent of catches now vs. 60 percent in the 1960s.

Another study suggests that at some point, males impregnating too many females may no longer be able, so to speak, to give their best shot each time, and the overall result is fewer viable eggs.

More concern about the population arises from the increasing number of scientific surveys that estimate the actual abundance of crabs in the bay, independent of commercial catches.

Maryland's winter survey, now 6 years old, indicates that crab numbers last winter were down about 50 percent from the six-year average; and the number of females was down about 34 percent from the year before.

A Virginia survey suggests that the number of female crabs had fallen dramatically as of the 1980s, compared with the period of the 1950s through the 1970s. Another Virginia survey shows a sharp decline in the overall crab population from the 1980s to the 1990s.

The 50 or so watermen at the Salisbury meeting were skeptical, some a bit belligerent -- and probably fearful, beneath it all. In the last decade or two, they have lost most of the income they once had from shad, oysters and rockfish. Crabs are literally their last stand.

The watermen fervently would like to blame crab problems on the rockfish, now at or near traditional levels of abundance, and protected by a limited fishing season after sport and commercial fishing decimated them in the 1970s.

The watermen said the rock they catch and cut open are stuffed with little crabs. Rockfish do eat small crabs, state biologists said; but several studies between 1927 and 1992 show more than 90 percent of their diet is menhaden, bay anchovies and other small fish.

Crabs might seem a natural choice of rockfish, given an abundance of the crustaceans estimated in the hundreds of millions.

But consider that a single species of minnow, the bay anchovy, can hit annual numbers estimated in the tens of billions.

Also, in the last half century, rockfish, which eat crabs only sometimes, have not so much grown abundant as they have declined, and returned to abundance.

Meantime, crab pots -- which specifically catch crabs -- have grown from virtually nothing (they were perfected and patented in 1938), to hundreds of thousands in the Chesapeake.

Many watermen conceded they would be willing to sacrifice to sustain the blue crab, but only if any sacrifice is shared with Virginia.

With that, they raised probably the key point of any attempts to reverse the troublesome trends involving spawning females.

Virginia is catching at least as many as Maryland, and maybe double that amount, both in crab pots in fall and in a winter dredge fishery.

Managing the bay's crabs as a single stock has been the principle, on paper, since 1989; but in reality, each state has gone its own way -- and neither, the evidence says, has done enough.

Endangered species forum

Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest,a 1st District Republican, will hold a town meeting on the Endangered Species Act at 7 p.m. Monday in the Joint Legislative Hearing Room in Annapolis. The Sierra Club plans a rally at 6 p.m.

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