Are bay crabs on way out? Experts split Critical count: An industry is at stake as Maryland tries to determine whether wild variations in the number of crabs in the bay represent a crisis or the course of nature.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In aptly named Fishing Bay in Dorchester County, waterman Donald Pierce found so many blue crabs slumbering on the bottom this winter that he had trouble counting them all.

But across the Chesapeake Bay in St. Mary's County, waterman Lonnie Moore had trouble finding enough crabs to count when he checked a 15-mile stretch of the Potomac River last month.

Are there plenty of crabs in the bay, or a perilous few? That is the $187 million question for the Chesapeake's most valuable fishery. The answer continues to elude state officials and biologists, although the most recent scientific study was surprisingly optimistic.

The only thing that's certain, says L. Eugene Cronin, who has been studying crabs for more than 50 years, is that the crustaceans can fool you.

"Everything we know about crabs shows change -- ups and downs," Dr. Cronin, former director of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, told a House committee in Annapolis last week. "That's why it's been so hard to get a handle on them."

The contradictions have made abundantly clear just how much experts don't know about the blue crab; not even how long it can live.

"The picture appears brighter now," said Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin. But he added, "There [are] a lot of gaps in our knowledge."

In part because of the latest study's rosier outlook, the department has drafted milder limits for the 1996 crabbing season than the emergency restrictions imposed last fall, when state officials reacted to a slumping harvest.

The 1995 catch was 40 million pounds, down 10 percent from the long-term average. A shortened work week and shortened season reduced the fall harvest by an estimated 30 percent.

Are limits needed?

A group of watermen and Eastern Shore legislators now argue that the crab population is so healthy that no limits are needed, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening has held up the department's draft for review. State officials say restrictions are still likely, but the delay means that they probably cannot take effect until after the season starts April 1.

Last summer, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Annapolis-based environmental group, declared that the fishery was "on the verge of collapse," and in late August the governor warned of a "crisis brewing" and announced emergency catch limits for the rest of the season.

Angry watermen and crab processors complained that the state had overreacted to natural fluctuations in the bay's bounty.

Their stance gained credence in January, when an as-yet unpublished government study concluded that crabs are plentiful.

The study -- a computer-assisted statistical assessment of the crab stock -- drew on surveys conducted over the past 50 years to devise mathematical "models" of the population. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office coordinated the study team of state and federal biologists.

The assessment concluded that although the number of crabs fluctuates from year to year, the species is generally as abundant today as in the 1960s and 1970s.

"We don't see evidence of overfishing," Ann Lange, a NOAA fisheries biologist, told legislators at a hearing in Annapolis last week.

"The study shows 'no threat,' " state Sen. Lowell J. Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, said recently. "The fishery is indeed healthy, not on the verge of collapse."

The study has divided crab scientists because the findings contradict a widely held belief that the Chesapeake's crab population is under stress.

"There are basically two camps right now," said Romauld V. Lipcius, a crab researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a skeptic about the NOAA study.

"I just don't believe it, that's all," said William A. Richkus, a fisheries scientist with Versar Inc., a consulting firm.

'Within reason'

"I think it's within reason," said Dr. Cronin, who is regarded in Maryland as the dean of crab scientists. However, he said the assessment was limited by the lack of consistent monitoring.

Indeed, the study patched together unrelated surveys conducted by Dr. Cronin beginning in the 1940s and a later count begun in 1968 by George R. Abbe, a researcher with the Academy of Natural Sciences.

The assessment also relied on unproven assumptions about the biology of blue crabs.

Scientists do not know, for instance, how long crabs might live if not caught. Predictions range from three to six years. The shorter a crab's maximum lifespan, the more can be harvested, because they would only die anyway.

The assessment went with a span of four years.

Nor do biologists know how many spawning females are needed to sustain the blue crab population. Other crustaceans have been able to survive with only 5 percent, and the assessment was pegged at 10 percent. However some experts argue that to be on the safe side, 20 percent ought to be spared.

Elizabeth Gillelan, director of NOAA's bay office, said the assumptions were chosen because independent biologists said that they were realistic. Further, she said, use of the most conservative assumptions would not alter the conclusion.

NOAA plans to convene a panel of crab experts to review the assessment once the report is written. Ms. Gillelan said that the findings were released before the review because regulators in Maryland and Virginia were clamoring for information.

She said she was one of those stunned by the assessment's findings.

'What science is all about'

"This is what science is all about," she said. "Scientists do not take a politically correct notion and try to find data to support that. The results are the results."

Meanwhile, Maryland and Virginia officials are compiling results from a bi-state survey conducted this winter to see how many crabs are likely to be available for harvest.

Winter might seem an odd time to survey crabs; actually, it is ideal. Crabs swim around freely from spring through fall, making it difficult to conduct a census. But when the water turns icy, they burrow into the bottom to await spring.

Watermen, including Mr. Pierce and Mr. Moore, helped take the survey. With state biologists aboard their boats to count, they sampled the bottom in more than 1,000 locations from Aberdeen to Hampton Roads with a 6-foot dredge. The survey is underwritten with $250,000 in federal funds.

Last year, the survey indicated that the stock was dwindling. The number of crabs dredged up last winter was 34 percent lower than the average haul over the five previous years of the survey. Female crabs of spawning age were even scarcer.

That tally was one factor that prompted Maryland and Virginia to enact measures to limit commercial and recreational crabbing.

In Maryland, the emergency restrictions angered watermen and sports crabbers, and one crabmeat processor in Dorchester County estimates that the state catch limits cost his industry at least $5 million in income.

Given the political tension, officials are refusing to discuss the survey until the results have been analyzed.

But Mr. Pierce and Mr. Moore said their sampling suggests that the crab harvest should rebound. They differ over the degree.

"The next two years should be the best we've had for quite a while," predicted Mr. Pierce of Rock Hall, who found more crabs this winter in the upper bay than in any year since 1989.

Mr. Moore, who lives on Tangier Island in Virginia, was less optimistic. He found somewhat more crabs than last winter when he sampled in mid-bay.

"I believe we're going to have crabs next [season]. I believe it with all my heart," said Mr. Moore, who also works for the bay foundation. "But my dread is whether it's going to be short-term."

Maryland officials say they have prepared crabbing restrictions for 1996 with an eye toward minimizing crabbers' pain while still conserving the species.

"We've got to keep vigilant here and tweak things without unnecessary impacts," said DNR Secretary Griffin. "Or else, out of sight, out of mind, we don't have a fishery left."

Many watermen and crab processors have signaled their willingness to accept restrictions again, despite the brighter outlook.

"They're not willing to take the gamble," said Larry W. Simns, the watermen's president.

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