Maryland and Virginia must cut their harvests of blue crabs or risk destroying the fishery, a committee of scientists and economists said yesterday, setting the stage for proposed new limits on crabbers and battles over the limits in both state houses.
The 27-member panel is to present its "statement of consensus" Sept. 27 to the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, which is expected to make recommendations to the Maryland and Virginia legislatures in January. The committee is nearing the end of a two-year study of the blue crab fishery.
Though many have fretted for years over the state of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, few have been able to agree on the size of the problem or what to do about it.
"We knew a lot of these things intuitively, that crabs were declining," said Ann Swanson, chairwoman of the panel of scientists and economists. "But different people said it was different things; we're taking too many females, it's an odd year, it's the weather. Now, we have all these scientists and economists saying the same thing. When in the past has that ever happened?"
The panel found that the breeding population is way down, as is the overall population of crabs in the bay, and that crabs are being caught as soon as they reach legal size.
In addition, the members noted that crabbing is at record levels baywide while individual catches are declining, and that it could get worse if licensed watermen who aren't crabbing return to work.
The amount of fishing must be reduced "in all sectors of the fishery to ensure the long-term sustainability of the crab stock and increase income in the fishery," the panel said.
Maryland's crab harvest this year could be the lowest since the state began keeping reliable records in 1993.
The catch from April to July, the first four months of the season, was 9.7 million pounds, the lowest ever for that period and about a third lower than the average. Harvest figures for last month are not available, said John Surrick, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Winter dredge surveys in Maryland and Virginia, which have been relatively accurate predictors of the crab harvest for the past eight years, have shown steadily declining numbers.
The panel of scientists and economists made no suggestions, but called the deep water crab sanctuary Virginia established in June an "appropriate means of protecting a portion of the blue crab spawning stock."
Among the options under consideration are further limits on crab licenses and gear, increased size limits, decreased hours crabbers can work and transferable quotas. Watermen could buy and sell the rights to catch a certain amount of crabs.
Whatever the Bi-State advisory committee recommends is likely to meet resistance from watermen.
"I'm sure we're not going to like 90 percent of it," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "These scientists are too ... arrogant to talk to the right people. The fishermen ought to make the rules."
Two options unlikely to be considered are a moratorium on crabbing and a ban on taking female crabs.
"This one kills me when I hear it so often as the magical solution," said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's certainly important to protect female crabs when they're vulnerable, but if you [outlaw taking females] all you do is shift the effort to the males, and that side of reproduction is diminished."
It also would wreck much of Virginia's fishery, which depends on female crabs, said George Abbe of the Estuarine Research Center in St. Leonard.
Male crabs generally stay in the Maryland portion of the bay while females migrate to the mouth of the bay to spawn, where Virginia has established sanctuaries. They are harvested outside those sanctuaries for seafood processing houses.
"If you stop harvesting females, then you shut down the picking houses, which are already in precarious situations because of the imports," Abbe said. "They've been dredging for females for 100 years, and I don't know that closing that side of the fishery will solve the problem."
A moratorium, which saved the bay's rockfish population, wouldn't do much good either, most scientists and watermen agree.
Rockfish, which had been fished almost to extinction, take seven to eight years to reach sexual maturity and can live as long as 25 years.
Crabs, which reach maturity in a year and live three years, haven't reached that stage.
"What good would a moratorium do for something that only lives three years?" Simns asked. "The only thing that would do would be a short-term improvement."