Bay's blue crabs overfished since late '80s, study says University report follows news of low July harvest in Md.


RICHMOND, Va. -- A new study concludes that Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs have been overfished since the late 1980s, and that crabbers' harvests will eventually have to be cut by 10 percent, and maybe more, if the industry is to last.

The two-year study by scientists at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is a new piece in a growing consensus that the bay's most valuable commercial fishery is being pushed to its limits and perhaps beyond.

"We're either just below the maximum sustainable harvest or we've been well over it most of the time since the 1980s," fisheries biologist Thomas J. Miller told members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission meeting here yesterday. "We're taking about 10 percent more than we should. How close to the edge of a cliff do we want to go?"

Few bay creatures are harder to predict than the blue crab, and there are a host of complicating factors: oddities of weather, changes in the bay environment, an abundance of fish that may be eating young crabs, and more.

Still, experts told commission members from Maryland and Virginia that fishing pressure on crabs is at near-record levels.

As more watermen stalk the crabs, the scientist said the overall abundance in the bay is down. So is the crabs' average size, the percentage of them big enough to be legally caught, and the number of females old enough to reproduce.

The assessment, based on four surveys conducted in Maryland and Virginia waters, came after the startling news that Maryland's July blue crab catch was the lowest on record -- at 4.6 million pounds, barely over half the average July harvest.

That news prompted experts to take a closer look at their records, and prompted policy makers from the bay commission to begin talking seriously about the prospect of new restrictions on crabbing.

"We have to determine whether or not we're overfishing this resource and what we're going to do about it," said Robert Bachman, fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "That, I think, is the burning issue facing this group."

The odds of new restrictions within the next two years "are pretty good," said Maryland DNR Secretary John Griffin, "but from what we've seen, I don't think there's any basis for doing jTC anything new this fall. What we're about here is trying to get a better handle on this fishery."

But Virginia state Sen. Bob Bolling said current management practices are working, and there is no proof that lower limits are needed. "Just because we see a drop in July's harvest we don't cry 'Chicken Little'," Bolling said.

"There is reason for concern," retorted Miller, the biologist. "I don't think we should say the sky is falling. But we have to be cautious."

Miller acknowledged yesterday that some of his conclusions may change. "This isn't rocket science," he said. "It's a lot harder."

Watermen on the commission scoffed at the notion that crabs are being overfished, blaming instead the bay's abundant striped bass population. But Harley Speir of Maryland's DNR said studies show that fewer than 5 percent of striped bass have blue crabs in their stomachs when caught.

Other environmental changes are probably hurting the crabs, scientists and watermen agreed.

Robert Orth, an expert on underwater grasses from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, said the grasses that shelter young crabs in Tangier Sound, a vital nursery area, have been waning since 1992, despite gains in other parts of the bay. The Tangier Sound losses appear to be continuing this year, and no one knows why.

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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