Angst Among the Hardshells


Steamed crabs are back and bountiful. The traditional cure for a steamy Maryland summer is once again in ample evidence, on trotlines and in crab pots, in seafood shops and crabhouses. They're succulent, spicy -- and affordable.

This in spite of nervous warnings about a sharp decline in these prolific creatures. Despite strained calculations and some fuzzy economic theories, the clawed crustaceans are appearing in ample supply at the height of the season.

A delayed summer was to blame for small catches and sky-high prices on Memorial Day. That commercial shortage unhappily came just after the release of winter sampling data that indicated a decline in crab density, and another report that Chesapeake watermen were working much harder to maintain the catch level. But by July 4, prices were a bit lower than last year and the Department of Natural Resources was predicting ** an annual crab harvest no worse than normal.

Harvest figures alone don't tell the full story of crab numbers and health. Neither do short-term biological surveys, or unrefined computer models, which fail to account for the many vagaries of nature and the predictable unpredictability of bay crab populations, which can lay trillions of fertilized eggs in a single year.

There is certainly a need for continuing research on, and attention to, the state of the blue crab in the Chesapeake. The bay's most valuable resource deserves close monitoring and study to prevent a disastrous population collapse.

Restraints on catches have been imposed by Maryland and Virginia in recent years, with uncertain results. Now scientists are focusing on ways to protect fertile females, which were once saved from over-harvesting by their lower market value.

But there is no reason for Marylanders to be cowed by dire prophecies of endangered crabs, and to think that by abstaining from consumption this summer they are contributing to long-range conservation of the species. The situation of crabs is much different from that of rockfish, which needed an outright ban on harvest to recover from serious jeopardy. Natural resources managers say they need more information before even considering further restrictions on crabbing. That's a prudent approach to a complex issue and a complex creature.

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