Decline of the bay's crabs raises a political issue [Editorial]

As summer draws near, Americans anticipate coming delights — a cabin in the woods, a blanket on a beach, a boat on a river. In Maryland, that iconic image is a table laden with steamed crabs. Thus has it been for generations in the "land of pleasant living."

It was with heavy hearts, then, that Marylanders took in the news last week from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater that they could expect another season of relatively scarce, and therefore expensive, blue crabs.

High prices and limited availability will no doubt be on the price board the next time we visit our favorite crabhouse.

The population of female crabs remains too small to generate, at least in the near future, the abundance of crabs that older generations may recall as not just a perk for being a Marylander, but a birthright.

Researchers estimate that 297 million crabs survived our recent winter, down from the previous year's 300 million, which was already a distressingly low number. The severity of the winter gets prominent blame in the survey, but Marylanders have long known that pollution and agricultural runoff are killing the underwater grasses that are crucial for the blue crab — whose scientific name, callinectes sapidus, is derived from the Greek words for "beautiful swimmer" and the Latin for "savory" — to thrive.

What to do? Limit the harvest further? Discontinue winter crab dredging? Ban the catching of females? Impose a tax on properties to abate runoff? Beef up underwater grass and oyster bed replenishment? All of this has been or is being done.

"Long-term sustainability needs harder choices," according to crab researcher Thomas Miller, "whether that's habitat improvement, water-quality improvement, the whole Chesapeake Bay restoration. ... Whatever it is, it's clear the simple tool of fisheries management is not producing the results we thought it would, and we need to understand why."

It's now clear, if it wasn't already, that we cannot simply tinker with the bay itself via fisheries management and other restoration tools, although that needs to continue. Systemic management of the entire Chesapeake Watershed is necessary, and that is an expensive proposition.

Marylanders, as the bay's chief custodians, are willing to bear that cost, we are convinced, but only if the money is in a lockbox for no other use. To our politicians — give us a guarantee and we will shoulder the burden.

If there is a step to be taken to save the bay and restore bountiful crabs, it is that one.

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