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In bay, ideal comeback is one that isn't needed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ideally, Gov. Parris Glendening and John Griffin, his natural resources secretary, never will get much glory for "saving" or "restoring" the Chesapeake blue crab.

Rather, the two men, who this week proposed significant new protection for crabs, the bay's last world-class fishery, are to be commended for attempting something altogether less spectacular.

Also, ironically, something more daring and original than engineering any comeback from the brink.

Prevention, prudence, acting conservatively -- it seems dull compared to the internationally acclaimed restoration of the striped bass, or even the historic replenishment of the wild turkey throughout Maryland.

It is a comment on the last couple of decades of natural resources management that restorations and comebacks -- including that of the bay itself -- have become our standard of success.

One rejoices in these, but think of what it implies. Look at the track record of the era that has produced them in the bay region:

* Two species of shad declined so far that Maryland placed a moratorium on them in 1979, and only now is making progress toward lifting the bans.

* All fishing for striped bass (rockfish) banned for more than five years.

* A partial moratorium on yellow perch, once harbingers of spring, not to mention fine fishing and eating, in numerous streams and rivers.

* An unprecedented closure of the Canada goose season this winter in a desperate attempt to rebuild breeding stocks.

* Declines in oysters and in canvasback and redhead ducks, to the point a virtual de facto moratorium exists in many parts of the bay.

We have played fast and loose with our natural capital, and squandered the ability of whole generations to enjoy the full potential of a Chesapeake heritage.

There was no single cause for all the above, nor were all the reasons under Maryland's control; but there was a common thread.

All the way down those slippery slopes it always was easy for decision-makers to find reasons to wait just another season, just another year, to wait for more evidence, to be "reasonable" to vested economic interests.

It is like that now with crabs. Catches in the last decade, on average, have been booming -- a couple bad years, yes, but also some record ones.

At the same time, scientific evidence -- never as complete as one might wish -- has been building to indicate crabs are being pressed to the limit, and maybe soon beyond it.

For sport and commerce, we fish the blue crab so hard these days we hardly know what they used to look like.

Modern literature on the species gives its life span at 2 to 3 years, for example; but scientists think before heavy fishing it was closer to 5 (and grew a lot bigger).

It reminds me of critiques of modern foresters by ecologists who study ancient, old-growth forests. So few remain, foresters can't even comprehend how a "real" forest operated.

The governor's proposals would ease pressure on the crab by cutting off all crabbing Nov. 15, and ending it on Wednesdays and Sundays starting Sept. 15.

Next year, Oct. 31 would end the season; and one weekday, to be designated, would close to crabbing all season long.

The proposals, natural resources officials say, would save about 7 million crabs. That is a rough estimate, and a small portion of the bay's estimated several hundred million crabs.

But part of the virtue of acting before there is a full-blown crisis is you need not slash catches dramatically. Also, the bulk of those "saved" crabs would be spawning females, which surveys indicate are in serious decline.

Thursday's news conference also signaled, I think, an important shift in the attitude the Department of Natural Resources takes toward fisheries conservation.

Few people in or out of DNR think William "Pete" Jensen, the department's longtime fisheries administrator, would have moved this soon on the crab situation.

Jensen is supporting the new restrictions like a loyal soldier, but it's clear his influence has waned, and that John Griffin is moving to put his own, more conservative stamp on state fisheries policies.

Griffin, a deputy secretary at DNR for years, says he was "haunted by what happened with rockfish, and with Canada geese."

"I told [the governor] that in the past, we had talked and talked about making a decision until a resource had gotten to where it was almost a no-brainer to close it down," Griffin said.

Maryland's move on crabs, assuming a legislative review committee OKs it, casts a spotlight on Virginia, where most of the bay's female crabs migrate by late fall, to bury in the mud before emerging to spawn the next summer.

Are we preserving millions of female crabs to go south and reproduce?

Or, are we preserving them for Virginia crab potters who can now fish a full month beyond our proposed Oct. 31 shut-off?

And for Virginia watermen who dredge hibernating female crabs from the mud from December through March.

Virginia does not get as much credit as it deserves from Marylanders, who think its winter dredge fishery, targeting pregnant females, is the root of all crab problems.

First, understand that virtually every mature female crab, or "sook", has been impregnated.

So taking "sponge" crabs, with their protruding egg masses, caught mostly in Virginia near the spawning grounds, is little more injurious to reproduction than catching sooks in Maryland that are not yet "showing."

And look at the numbers. Virginia's hard crab catch runs about two-thirds females (they prefer the higher salinity of the lower bay).

That translates into an annual catch of some 25 million pounds of females, based on the annual average of recent harvests in Virginia.

Maryland's most recent data indicate a female harvest in the neighborhood of 18-20 million pounds -- and growing.

Of this bistate total of nearly 45 million pounds, the much maligned winter dredging in Virginia accounts for only about 5 million pounds.

Virginia also has enacted other worthwhile conservation measures, including no Sunday crabbing, a restriction Maryland finds too controversial to make permanent.

For all that, the specter of several million reproducing females being let go in Maryland, only to run a gantlet of Virginia crab pots and dredges, should put serious pressure on our neighbors to join in going an extra step.

There will be a chorus of critics of Glendening's proposals heard baywide in coming weeks.

Ask them what is their solution. Ask them also about the shad, and the rockfish, and the yellow perch, and the oysters and geese and ducks.

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