Maryland's Chesapeake Bay crab harvest has plummeted to its second-lowest level in three decades, raising new concerns about one of the bay's signature species.
Watermen caught less than 22 million pounds of blue crabs last year, the lowest figure since 2000. The number is alarming to scientists because it suggests that the bay's population of crabs has fallen significantly despite state efforts to protect them.
"We're concerned we have been harvesting too much of our population," said Frank Dawson, assistant secretary of natural resources. "Whether it was the worst or the second-worst harvest is, frankly, irrelevant. It is not good news."
The low figure seven years ago prompted both Maryland and Virginia to impose crabbing restrictions. Maryland limited the watermen's workweek while Virginia expanded the areas where crabbing is banned at times. Both states say they will consider further restrictions now. Maryland officials declined to offer specifics, saying they will talk to scientists, watermen, environmental activists and Virginia regulators to devise a plan.
Bay advocates have been expecting the bad news. Early last year, officials reported finding the second-lowest numbers of juvenile crabs in the bay since the state started counting in 1989. Pollution, drought and loss of bay grasses are all regarded as contributing factors to the species' decline.
Last month, Virginia signaled that its harvest numbers, which won't be complete for several weeks, would be low. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission released a report outlining several options for reducing fishing pressure on the blue crab, including a shorter season and more restrictions on the number of crab pots each waterman can use.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said the dismal news underscores the need for Virginia and Maryland to work together.
"If we are to restore the blue crab fishery to its former glory, well-coordinated baywide action is a must," she said. "Anything less will likely fail, and that failure will be on our watch."
The states used to meet regularly through the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, a panel of scientists and natural resource managers established in 1996. But in 2003, Virginia cut its $75,000 annual appropriation for the committee, prompting Maryland to withdraw its share and the panel to disband. Since then, many bay advocates say, communication between the states has suffered.
Maryland makes the rules for crabbing in its portion of the Chesapeake Bay, where most of the catch is male. Virginia makes the rules for its portion, where most of the crabs are females. The Potomac River has its own commission.
Virginia allows watermen to harvest pregnant female crabs, known as sponges, while Maryland prohibits the practice. Virginia also allows watermen to dredge for crabs in the winter, while Maryland bans the practice.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist Bill Goldsborough said both states should look at stricter regulations. Like many scientists, he has long suggested that both states pay more attention to protecting females.
Virginia has expanded its sanctuary for female crabs several times since it was established in the 1940s. A few scientists continue to lobby for sanctuaries in Maryland to protect crabs as they migrate down the bay. Restrictions on catching females would hurt Maryland watermen somewhat but would devastate Virginia watermen - a fact that has complicated management efforts, said Tom Miller, a University of Maryland biologist who has discussed crab regulations with managers in both states.
"It might be that you could have the biggest effect by limiting the harvest on females. But the concern always is the fairness with which you can do that, because it really impacts Virginia more than Maryland," said Miller, a professor in the university's Center for Environmental Science. "It is a political decision."
In September, state officials warned watermen that crabs were in danger of being over-fished and asked for suggestions to keep both the crab population healthy and the watermen in business. State officials say they have received feedback but declined to elaborate.
Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said his group would not necessarily oppose restrictions but wants to make sure they would actually help the crab population. "Whatever we do, we should do it together - Maryland and Virginia," Simns said. "And not something where we take a sacrifice and Virginia gets richer. We need to do something combined."
Many watermen have long insisted that the crabs are struggling in large part because of poor water quality, brought on by farm pollution and effluent from sewage-treatment plants. Ed Houde, a University of Maryland crab expert, agrees that the bay's water quality is a factor, but not as big as fishing pressure.
"You have to sympathize with the fishermen, but this is something we can do," Houde said. "We can regulate the fishing effort and control the catch so you maintain the stock of crabs. ... If you could do that in a year or two, which is the life span of the crab, then that would work. Otherwise, you risk losing it all."