Crab feast

Two years ago, Maryland and Virginia agreed to greatly reduce the harvest of female blue crabs to save the declining species — much to the dismay of some watermen. Last year, the controversial plan appeared to be working. This year, the news is even better.

Results of the 2009-2010 winter dredge survey show the number of crabs has reached the highest level in more than a decade. Perhaps most importantly, the number of baby crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has nearly doubled from one year ago. That's an extraordinary rebound by any standard. And it bodes well for epicureans and watermen alike this summer and fall.

What it does not suggest, however, is that the two states ought to immediately loosen those restrictions. Caution is in order, given the crab's importance to the Chesapeake region not only as seafood but as a part of our heritage and identity.

Maryland's Martin O'Malley and Virginia's Robert F. McDonnell have both indicated that they intend to keep regulations largely in place. There will no doubt be some grumbling about that within the seafood industry, but perhaps not for long.

Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the growing number of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries will mean more will be caught, restrictions or no. That already proved to be the case last year, when Maryland's blue crab catch rose to 53.7 million pounds from 38.6 million pounds in 2008. Consumers may eventually see larger crabs and perhaps even lower prices — although wholesale market forces can be just as unpredictable as wind and tide.

Assuming the two states hold firm, however, the speedy rebound of blue crab stocks is a tribute to a science-centered approach to fisheries management. Historically, the winter survey has given the states an accurate count of crabs in the bay. By setting a maximum harvest (of slightly less than half that number), Maryland and Virginia can be assured of future generations of crustaceans.

But there is also a danger that as the crab population recovers, watermen will devote more time to crabbing. In Maryland, officials have tried to reduce this potential problem of latent effort by buying back the licenses of marginal commercial crabbers. Thanks to that program (and natural attrition), there are about 1,000 fewer licenses today.

Even so, Maryland would be better off eventually switching to a fishery where watermen were given a quota of crabs to catch. That way they could harvest crabs to maximize their financial return (catching them when prices are high, for instance), and overall fishing pressure would be entirely predictable. It's a strategy that has been successful with other fisheries elsewhere, and advocates such as the Environmental Defense Fund are working diligently to build support for it among Maryland watermen.

The blue crab's potential recovery is also a tribute to the hardiness of the beloved Callinectes sapidus, a species once thought to be so fecund and plentiful in the Chesapeake that only wind and tide had an impact on its reproduction. The last two decades of travails have taught scientists otherwise.

It should also serve as a lesson for how best to manage other struggling fisheries, especially that other bay icon, the oyster. The more we allow native species to live and have offspring in peace, the far greater the likelihood they will do just that.

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