THE LATEST studies indicate the Chesapeake's blue crab population is in clear decline. Unfortunately, we've heard the same woeful assessments for years.
Maryland imposed new limits on crabbing three years ago, cutting permitted fishing times and catches. The results were mixed: a spurt in the crab catch one season, a drop the next.
Logically, the emphasis on curbing overfishing should have yielded an increase in crab numbers, given their short life span of two to four years. But commercial watermen have increased their efforts, within the rules, to take more of the shellfish. That has caused greater fluctuations in reported catches, within the season and from year to year.
Another problem is "growth overfishing," in which crabbers catch a large number of the blue crabs at their minimum legal size. That means fewer males grow into larger crabs, which are more prolific reproducers of future generations.
If crabs were allowed to grow larger, the total value of their harvest would increase. Increasing the legal minimum size could achieve that goal, although it finds fierce resistance from watermen chafing at ever-changing restrictions.
There's also a problem with Maryland's setting one minimum size and Virginia's prescribing another. While scientists increasingly view the bay crab as a single species, politicians have been slower to recognize this. Cooperation between the two bay states has been inconsistent.
An encouraging step is proposed by Virginia and Maryland regulators. It calls upon the states to commit two years and $100,000 to find the best way to prevent crab overfishing -- and to impose common controls.
That's a lot of time, given the extent of existing crab studies and catch data. But it gives needed assurance to watermen that rules won't change suddenly or vary between states. And it rightly emphasizes a shared responsibility for the future of the bay's blue crab.
Pub Date: 1/15/99