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BETTING ON A COMEBACK

The Baltimore Sun

The great protein factory that was the Chesapeake Bay is sputtering. The shad, once abundant enough to feed George Washington's army, are struggling to survive. Oysters are at historic lows. There are hardly any sturgeon left. Eels and clams have dwindled.

Could the blue crab be next?

The Chesapeake's iconic crustacean is in big trouble, with pollution and development contributing to the lowest baywide crab harvests in decades. But some scientists say crabs don't have to go the way of almost every other once-productive species in the bay.

They say the lot of the blue crab could be turned around in a few years - even within a political term.

"The blue crab presents a grand opportunity for restoration and recovery," said Ann Swanson, director of the multistate Chesapeake Bay Commission. "If you take action this year, you can see results by next year."

After a winter count of hibernating crabs found that the population remains alarmingly low, Maryland and Virginia said last week that they will impose rules to cut by a third the harvest of female crabs.

Several leading scientists say a reduction of that magnitude should yield significant results in reviving the species - if the states issue regulations that are effective.

But there is concern among scientists that the states may not be looking at the right rules.

"The Maryland approach I don't think is very effective at all, to be honest," said Anson "Tuck" Hines, director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater.

He and others worry that while the state will reduce the harvesting of crabs in certain parts of the bay, watermen will be free to simply step up their crabbing elsewhere. But scientists say the one-third reduction can be achieved if the states commit to it.

The reason for optimism about the species' revival is that female blue crabs are extremely fertile. And they mature within a year. Female rockfish, in contrast, take several years to mature. Sturgeon, which live for decades, can take up to 20 years to mature.

Unlike oysters, which are being ravaged by two deadly parasites, crabs are not dying from disease.

To bring back the crab, Maryland is considering bushel limits, a ban on catching soft crabs during part of the season, and a shorter season for catching females.

Virginia has already extended for six more weeks a ban on crabbing in its protected areas, called sanctuaries. It is also considering ending its winter dredge fishery, during which watermen harvest female crabs hibernating in the mud.

Both states plan to announce the specifics of new rules later this month.

While scientists believe that a one-third reduction is the right target for restoring the population, several said that establishing a sanctuary in Maryland would be a more certain way of attaining the goal.

In 2001, Maryland instituted restrictions on crabbing, including a shorter workweek for watermen, in hopes of boosting the population when the winter survey showed the crab nearing collapse. But the rules did not deliver the hoped-for rebound.

Hines and others say that was because Maryland focused on reducing crabbing, not on rebuilding the crab population. Crabbers were able to work harder on the days they were allowed to crab, and the harvest was not cut as much as officials had hoped.

Protect migration

What the state needs to do instead, some scientists say, is protect females as they migrate down the bay to spawn in Virginia waters. The best way to do that, they say, is by establishing a sanctuary that would close parts of the bay to crabbing during the weeks when females are on the move.

Hines, who has been working under a multimillion-dollar federal grant to study the migration corridors of crabs in the bay, says researchers know where these are and could establish protection zones fairly quickly.

But Maryland officials say more research is necessary to know just where the sanctuaries should be, and that could take several years. In the meantime, state natural resources officials say they are confident that the rules they enact this year will make a difference.

Ron Lipcius, a crab researcher at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, agrees with Hines that establishing a sanctuary in Maryland would be best. It would hurt crabbers, he acknowledges, but not nearly as much as would a moratorium. Baywide, the crab industry has an economic impact of $120 million to $200 million a year, according to the two states' governors. Given the consequences of losing that, a moratorium should be considered only if the situation were dire, officials say. And, Lipcius says, it's not dire yet.

"At this point, we don't have the justification that we're about to collapse," he said. "We're somewhere on the edge, but we're not in imminent danger of collapsing."

In 1985, Maryland rockfish stocks were so depleted that the state imposed a five-year moratorium. It devastated fishermen, but the stocks recovered and the rockfish is one of the bay's few success stories.

But those involved in the rockfish moratorium say the fish were dying almost entirely from hooks. The blue crab faces other pressures in addition to the harvest. Though highly resilient, the crustacean is forced to contend with a bay that is far less hospitable than it once was.

Restore habitat

Crabs' prime habitat - lush grass beds - has been disappearing for decades because of sediment and nutrient pollution from farms, lawns and sewage. Both block sunlight, which the bay grasses need to survive.

The nutrient pollution also feeds algae blooms, which take oxygen from the water. In the summer, crabs struggle to breathe in low-oxygen areas of the bay, and watermen sometimes pull up pots with dead crabs.

The crustacean has also lost much of its food, in part because shoreline development has destroyed the decomposing plant matter that feeds the small worms and clams that crabs like to eat.

Such environmental problems will not prevent the crab's comeback, but they will slow it down, said Jacques van Montfrans, an instructor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"If there are enough females around to cause a big influx of these crabs to come into the bay, they also have to have a place in which to settle," he said.

Three years ago, the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program tried to make the connection between enjoying steamed crabs and protecting their habitat.

It launched a $620,000 ad campaign warning people in the Washington suburbs that applying too much lawn fertilizer could cut into their summer crab feasts. With cheeky slogans like "Save the crabs, then eat 'em," the effort tried to appeal to people's self-interest, said Chris Conner, a former Bay Program communications manager.

It worked, Conner said: Many in the targeted audience stopped fertilizing their lawns altogether.

"For 20 years, we've tried to tell people about individual actions they can take to help the bay," he said. "Instead of going for their minds, we tried to reach them through their stomachs."

Even scientists who question the effectiveness of Maryland's and Virginia's current proposals acknowledge that this year's attempt to help the crab likely will be more successful than past efforts - in large part because the states are working together.

"There's definitely a good opportunity here for a success story," Lipcius said. "The issue of what success we're going to get is still an open question."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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