Questions arise over reports of increased blue crab harvest in '08

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland watermen reported catching more blue crabs last year than in 2007, despite new rules to protect the iconic Chesapeake Bay species, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

State officials say they believe the figures were inflated by watermen angry about the catch restrictions.

Still, scientists say reports of an increased harvest raise questions about the effectiveness of Maryland's rules. And the situation is awkward politically, since Virginia joined Maryland in pledging to restrict the catch - and that state is reporting success.

The reported increase in Maryland is "troubling," in the view of one crab scientist.

"They were attempting to reduce harvest," said Eric Johnson, a fisheries ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. "[Even] if the harvest comes in the same as last year, they certainly were not effective."

While acknowledging the higher reports from watermen, Maryland officials have declined to provide any figures, saying state biologists are still reviewing the data. Eric Schwaab, Maryland's deputy natural resources secretary, said other indicators being examined by state biologists suggest that Maryland came close to the two states' joint goal of reducing the catch of female crabs by a third.

"We're very confident that we did substantially reduce the female crab harvest," Schwaab said. But when asked how he could be sure when watermen reported catching more females, he replied, "We can't be."

Fisheries regulators traditionally rely on watermen's harvest reports to help them determine the effectiveness of their efforts to conserve a species.Maryland's reported increase comes as Virginia officials released figures this week showing that their watermen caught about 37 percent fewer females crabs as a result of crabbing restrictions there. Virginia officials said their figures were preliminary.

Prompted by surveys showing the bay's crab population to be seriously depleted and overfished, Maryland's and Virginia's governors pledged last April to take immediate steps to reduce the catch of female crabs by a third.

Such cooperative action was unprecedented. The the two states have differed over how to regulate the most lucrative segment of their seafood industries to protect a shared resource.

The bay's crabs spawn near the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia before fanning out throughout the bay and its rivers to feed, grow and mate. Pregnant females return to Virginia waters in the fall to spawn there in the spring.

The states issued different rules to reach the one-third goal. In Maryland, the state halted the female crab harvest Oct. 23, about seven weeks early, and imposed daily limits on how many females watermen could catch in the two months leading up to the early closure. Virginia halted its female crab harvest Oct. 27, and banned dredging slumbering crabs - most of them females - from the bay bottom in winter.

Watermen sue

The restrictions provoked bitter complaints in both states from watermen, who contended that the scientists were wrong and that the crab stock was rebounding. A group of Virginia watermen sued unsuccessfully to block that state's limits.

Yet some scientists had said last year that they were worried that the states' restrictions didn't go far enough to ensure the desired reduction in female crab catch.

Thomas Miller, one of those who'd expressed doubts, said it's possible that Maryland's decision to close the female harvest season early may have prompted watermen to fish harder than usual up to the cutoff.

"When you put season closures in effect, you often do get unexpected results," said Miller, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake biological laboratory.

It's also possible, Miller added, that higher harvest reports indicate that the bay's stock of adult crabs had actually increased since a survey last winter found them at dangerously low levels

The harvest "could have gone up for a good reason," he said. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said reports of higher catches last year should come as no surprise.

"I don't think the crab stock was as bad as they portrayed," said Simns, who has questioned the accuracy of the two states' annual winter crab survey, in which scientists dredge slumbering crabs from the bottom at 1,500 sites around the bay. "It shows you there's more crabs around."

But Schwaab said the winter survey is considered a reliable measure of the bay's crab population. He said state biologists think watermen may have been motivated to inflate their catch reports in the belief that future limits might be based on those figures. Maryland used past figures in determining last year's limits.

Maryland biologists believe the female catch went down by as much as 25 percent, possibly more, Schwaab said, based on other indicators. Those include an analysis of seafood buyers' reports, close observations of the harvest activity of about 40 selected watermen and an estimate of all the wire-mesh "pots" put in the bay last year to catch crabs.

Others point out those are not the traditional means of measuring the efficacy of catch limits.

Survey under way

Schwaab said the ultimate measure of the health of the bay's crab population will be determined by the annual dredge survey going on now. The results won't be known until April, but Maryland and Virginia are prepared to adjust their crabbing regulations for the coming season to tighten or ease restrictions, depending on the outcome.

Maryland has proposed different rules for this year that are aimed at keeping the harvest down while spreading the impact of the loss of income among watermen throughout the bay.

In part, the season would not close as early as before, in deference to lower bay watermen who rely on catching females in the fall for much of their income. But there would be stiffer limits earlier in the season.

Maryland is not the only place where the reported crab harvest went up in the face of catch restrictions. Watermen on the Potomac River, who are regulated by a bi-state commission, also said they caught slightly more crabs last year than in 2007, despite curbs similar to Maryland's.

AC Carpenter, executive secretary of the Potomac commission, said the river's watermen did catch about 13 percent fewer female crabs than average, but the reduction fell short of the one-third goal.

Carpenter said it appeared that female crabs started migrating out of the Potomac earlier than normal last fall, allowing more to be caught before the season closed than officials had expected when they set the cutoff date.

"Now we know we need to be a little more conservative with that," he said.

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