WHILE HAND-lining with fatty bacon from a Patapsco River pier two decades ago, my grandfather grunted the same three-word command each time we netted a shimmering female crab.
"Toss her back."
My grandfather and the other old men on the pier intuitively knew that removing females from the Chesapeake Bay was especially damaging to the health of the overall blue crab population. In recent years, the Chesapeake crab population has plummeted, owing largely to pressure from overfishing.
Recognizing the downward population trend, Gov. Parris N. Glendening implemented a comprehensive set of limits last month on this year's crab harvest. Glendening's action came after a state legislative committee, pressured by watermen groups, backed away from a compromise on harvest limits that had been two years in the making. Glendening's limits were far tougher than those originally before the committee, and include provisions for a shortened season, shortened workdays and mandatory days off for watermen.
Virginia legislators also established limits on their state's crab harvest, closing the commercial fishery outright for six summer days, lowering winter dredge limits and limiting recreational crabbers to one bushel of hard crabs and two dozen peelers, or soft crabs, each day.
Together, the two states are seeking to reduce their respective crab harvests by 5 percent each year for the next three, and have established the strictest limits on the Chesapeake's seasonal crab harvest to date.
Mounting data from the scientific community illustrate the likely need for even stronger limits, making greater political struggles likely in coming years.
Watching this, I think back to the gruff warnings the old men on the pier would give any newcomer dropping a female crab into his keeper basket. "Let the ladies lie," they'd bark.
Their words should be heeded immediately by all commercial watermen and recreational crabbers on the bay. Legislators should use the warnings as a basis for action, instituting a complete, multiyear moratorium on the taking of all female crabs from the Chesapeake.
A report that soon will be formally released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that the blue crab population is teetering dangerously close to collapse, and that collapse could be caused by a single significant environmental event such as a flood or storm. Based on data from several studies, including the winter dredge survey and well over 1,000 monitoring sites, NOAA found that the number of mature female crabs is below the level in 1968, the previous historical low.
Derek Orner, NOAA fisheries biologist and chairman of the recent study, boiled down the science to a simple sentence: "The blue crab population is in really big trouble."
The findings of the federal scientists reinforce those of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which recently documented an 81 percent drop in the female blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay over the past 12 years. This study found not only shrinking numbers of female crabs, but also shrinking biomass, suggesting that today's crabs are smaller and weaker than those in the past.
"Females get hit extra hard ... , and the breed stock is challenged [because] all parts of the commercial fishery take females before they hatch out their larvae," said Rom Lipcius, professor of marine science at VIMS. "Females are valued as peelers, and they're taken in pots and by dredging."
Maryland commercial fishermen took 9 million pounds of female crabs from the Chesapeake last year, with a dockside value of $6 million. Virginia's commercial crab fishery, far more dependent on the taking of females because they tend to congregate in the lower bay, pulled female blue crabs totaling 19 million pounds and $11.5 million from the bay last year. Hard data can be elusive, but estimates are that the number of females taken by recreational crabbers equals a significant percentage of, and possibly even matches, the commercial haul.
These figures expose why most calls to eliminate the taking of female crabs have traditionally fallen on deaf ears, even though they were being voiced in public forums as far back as the 1960s.
The suggestions were dismissed as an inequitable compromise that discriminated against Virginia watermen, or as a one-sided management strategy ignoring the fact that both sexes needed to be present for breeding success. Critics also hold that the sheer economic impact of a moratorium would damage the local economies in the bay states, especially in Virginia.
Yet, with crab fishery poised on the brink of total collapse, it stands to reason that reduced profits for a finite period are far better than no profits, forever.
Mindful that male crabs take several mates in the course of a breeding cycle, it also follows that the crab population can survive with fewer males far better than it can with fewer females, increasing the viability of a females-first conservation strategy.
The only answer to the argument that harvest limits on female crabs discriminate against Virginia watermen can come from Maryland and Virginia's state legislators.
They must develop a package to fairly compensate the affected industries. Watermen and processors observing a moratorium on their primary cash catch because it is the right thing to do for their catch's long-term survival should not be economically punished, especially when their states are supporting the moratorium.
Watermen and processors should be compensated by both states acting in partnership, perhaps employing them as bay stewards working to restore areas of impaired underwater habitat or as enforcement officers monitoring the harvest.
Rather than hiding behind the economic challenges of a moratorium on the taking of female crabs, lawmakers and citizens from all bay states should fiercely lobby the federal government to remember and renew its commitment to the Chesapeake Bay.
Federal funding cuts
While the federal government was a proud signatory of the Chesapeake 2000 accord intended to further baywide cleanup and conservation efforts, the Bush administration has proposed devastating, multimillion-dollar funding cuts for Chesapeake Bay programs.
Should the federal branch resist, crab-consuming industries and citizens must be willing to assume part of the financial burden created by a moratorium. It is, after all, largely consumer demand that has driven the crab population downward.
A moratorium on the taking of female crabs is not the only management step necessary to revitalize the blue crab population. Watermen groups correctly hold that a number of environmental crab killers need to be addressed, including pesticide runoff, the disappearance of underwater grasses, and chronic sewage overruns into the bay.
Watermen also contend that it may be time to revisit the hallowed status of the once-endangered and strictly protected rockfish, a voracious crab predator with a restored population.
Several scientists, including Lipcius of VIMS, champion the creation of an extensive network of crab sanctuaries designed to protect a large percentage of the total crab breed stock.
One such sanctuary was created in June of last year and covers 665 square miles of Virginia's bay waters. While sanctuaries hold long-term promise, they will be irrelevant if NOAA's dark prophecy comes true, and the breed stock crashes.
Ultimately, no other management strategy holds the immediate, common-sense promise of a moratorium on the taking of female crabs. Thinking back to the old men on the pier, I am sure they would nod in firm agreement.
Tim Zink is an editor of Blue Ridge Press and a former National Geographic staffer.