A pioneering research project to boost the dwindling numbers of juvenile crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has lost its federal funding, leaving the program's future in doubt.
Since 2002, the Center of Marine Biotechnology at the Inner Harbor has received $15 million in earmarked federal funds to conduct research on the life cycle of the blue crab, then put young crabs in the bay to see how they live and where they migrate. In the omnibus spending bill signed by President Bush, the project's appropriation was slashed from nearly $4 million in 2007 to zero in 2008.
"We were all surprised that such a program that delivered so much on the investment was cut," said Yonathan Zohar, the center's director and the crab project's leader. "There is no other way to conduct this type of program other than to get this type of federal funding. ... And for the blue crab, it was so well- deserved because we wanted to do something before it was too late."
Zohar said he has enough money to continue the research until the end of this year and in the meantime will seek other funding. If he doesn't find it, Zohar said, he will have to lay people off. The federal grant pays at least part of the salaries of two dozen scientists at the center, as well as for researchers in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi. Most of the money has stayed in Maryland and is shared between Zohar's lab and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater.
The project is regarded as important by bay advocates because the researchers were able for the first time to raise large numbers of blue crabs in a hatchery, then map their migration patterns in the bay. The hope was that the work would help state officials better protect the bay's diminishing crab population.
The funding cuts come a few months after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced that the bay's blue crabs - one of the state's last productive fisheries - are in danger of being overfished.
Last year's winter-dredge survey found the second-lowest number of juvenile crabs in the bay since the state began counting, in 1989. Crab harvests have fallen sharply in recent years, from 48 million pounds in 1991 to 28 million pounds a year ago.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who sits on the Appropriations Committee, had secured an earmark for the crab project for the past six years. Mikulski declined to speak specifically about the project, but through her press office issued a statement that suggested she might not have requested funding for 2008.
"President Bush's cuts to domestic spending caused Senator Mikulski to dramatically reduce her congressional projects. In fact, several were eliminated altogether," said Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz. "Earmarks are not forever."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which sounded an alarm about the blue crab population more than a decade ago, had been keeping a close watch on Zohar's research. Foundation President Will Baker wrote federal officials urging them to continue the funding when he learned it was in jeopardy.
The center's work "has enormous potential for the future of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population," Baker said in an interview.
Last year, Zohar's team put 215,000 crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. Though Zohar considers that a major accomplishment, he acknowledges that to make a difference in breeding stocks, they would need to put 6 million to 16 million crabs in the water.
Even more important to scientists were the findings about the reproductive life of crabs. The researchers learned that females mate only once but hold on to their eggs and can produce four or five broods in a lifetime. They also learned that the crab grows from larva to mature adult in about five months - much faster than previously thought. And they mapped the crab's migration patterns.
Zohar hopes the findings will influence fisheries management decisions, including the possible creation of a sanctuary in Maryland to protect crabs as they migrate down the bay.
The Center of Marine Biotechnology, part of the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute, began the crab project with little money and much skepticism from the scientific community. Even several scientists who joined Zohar's team questioned whether they could re-create the complicated life cycle of the notoriously cannibalistic blue crab in a hatchery, much less keep track of the crabs once they are in the bay.
The project began with a $300,000 grant from Phillips Foods and several hundred thousand dollars in state funding. In 2002, Mikulski, who has long been interested in helping Maryland's struggling watermen, went to see Zohar at his lab. She began earmarking millions of dollars a year for the research.
Though the project employs a few watermen at its crab nursery in Southern Maryland, it has relied mostly on the work of scientists. The researchers produced more than 70 papers and gave 125 presentations at conferences around the world.
That made it different from the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the other major fisheries program for which Mikulski has earmarked money. The partnership's goal is to restore oysters both for ecological reasons and to provide economic benefits to watermen. It has planted nearly 1 billion oysters in the bay - many of them in areas where watermen can eventually harvest them.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administers both the crab and the oyster programs. The oyster partnership, which received nearly $3 million last year, saw its funding cut nearly in half for this year. NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen said that though agency officials were "very happy" with Zohar's work, the oyster program was a higher priority because it is trying to restore a species that has nearly been wiped out.
"The oyster restoration is on-the-ground work that addresses a really pressing need," she said.
Some scientists have criticized the oyster earmark after an investigation by The Sun revealed that the program spent nearly $46,000 in federal funds for a lavish dinner at an Eastern Shore resort and paid nearly $400,000 for watermen to move diseased oysters from one part of the bay to another. Several state officials have said the practice has little ecological benefit.
Allen said NOAA has responded to the criticisms by increasing its oversight.
Standing in his basement hatchery, Zohar vowed to try to find the money to go on. He has already accomplished more than many scientists thought possible, and he said he is not about to give up.
"The program must continue, one way or the other," Zohar said. "The Chesapeake Bay needs it."