Crab bounty or bust?


Two months ago, crabs were selling for more than $100 a bushel and were relatively scarce even at that price. There was talk of further state restrictions on recreational and commercial crabbing to protect the Chesapeake's most valuable creature, even after the rules had been tightened last year. A gloomy report on declining numbers of blue crabs counted in the annual winter survey added to the pessimistic outlook.

Now the succulent crustaceans are in ample supply and prices have dropped. The hungry side-walkers are fighting each other to grab on to chicken bait strung from trotlines or sitting in crab pots. Crab houses are doing a booming business. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources predicts a normal harvest of hardshells this year.

The delayed onset of summer seems to have been the cause of early season shortages, especially around Memorial Day. Seafood sellers report no problems with supply. Commercial watermen may be putting out more traps (within new legal limits) to make their efforts more efficient, but there's little evidence that the bay crab is disappearing.

Harvest figures alone can't predict the population size or the health of that blue crab population. Those reports are limited to commercial license holders, and there is increasing concern that the sport or non-commercial crabbing activity may be putting intense pressure on the species.

Biological surveys and artificial computer modeling also fall short in failing to take into account the uncertainties of nature. The Chesapeake crab population lays trillions of eggs each year, leaving much to chance and unpredictable conditions.

One major effort to evaluate the relationship between natural factors and human fishing pressures on blue crab population is expected by summer's end: the first "stock assessment" sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mountains of data will be processed by computers to forecast crab life cycles in the bay.

Continued scientific research is needed to more accurately monitor and predict population trends of these "beautiful swimmers." Future restraints on crabbing may be needed, especially to protect the fertile females. But they are in no way an endangered species. There's no reason for Marylanders to feel guilty about enjoying a pile of steamed spicy crabs or savory crab cakes as the gustatory delight of a Chesapeake summer.

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