New thinking needed for Chesapeake Bay crab fishery

Over the past decade, Maryland's commercial watermen, our families and communities have slowly but steadily been reaching a turning point in our lives. With a polluted Chesapeake Bay, uncertain seafood stocks, rising costs of doing business and unpredictable fisheries management, commercial watermen around the state are facing a critical choice about the future.

We can choose to follow the path we are on, filled with instability and insecurity, or we can choose a road of sustainability and promise. The former is littered with marginal profits, increasing regulations, and a lack of confidence in government by watermen; the latter demands leadership, innovation and forward thinking that can result in profitable waterman businesses and stronger waterman communities. We must choose a future of effective fisheries management on the bay. I believe we know in our hearts the right path to take.

Restrictive regulations, though squarely based on science, can cause unstable harvest levels that can in turn lead to economic and social conflict throughout the industry. Watermen worry that more restrictive regulations, combined with increasing operating costs, cheap imports and fluctuating prices, will continue to reduce revenues and threaten livelihoods and our way of life. Overly liberal regulations, on the other hand, allow for overharvesting and loopholes, causing stocks to fall below management targets. Excessive harvest then floods the market with too much catch at once, causing prices to plummet and motivating watermen to fish more. Conservationists worry that unstable fish or crab populations will threaten the resilience of the bay's already weakened ecosystem; managers worry that without strict controls and regulations, we could have overharvest of key stocks.

So, what to do?

The Maryland Watermen's Association (MWA) believes balance can be achieved by designing a fisheries management system that meets conservation and management goals while also achieving the economic and social goals of the industry. That is why a commercial fishing work group called the "blue crab industry design team" is creating a new fisheries management approach for the bay's blue crab fishery that will subsequently be accepted by the DNR. The group includes other watermen leaders from around the state, as well as representatives of commercial fishery-related businesses, and is supported by a national conservation group, the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been a strong partner to the commercial fishing industry over the past year. This group can provide fisheries expertise from its work around the world and will add credibility to the depth and breadth of our eventual recommendations.

Focusing on the blue crab fishery, this effort places industry in a leadership role in exploring alternatives to current commercial blue crab fishery management. Team members, working closely with the larger waterman community, are now considering the wide breadth of management options that can lead to our industry's progress here on the bay. Discussions will be centered on improving accountability (through accurate catch reporting), maintaining a sustainable stock, ensuring opportunities for watermen in the long term and developing new market opportunities for our industry.

It is only natural that uncertainty about the future and this effort can lead to skepticism, cynicism and resentment. Some watermen, having been burned in the past and fearing the unknown, may prefer the status quo over new ways to co-manage our fisheries. Outside the waterman community, there are those who think that all watermen are like the few illegal poachers; we're not.

Some may like to see the watermen disappear. They naively think that getting rid of commercial harvests will bring stocks back. Regardless of the data that show overharvesting is not the biggest problem facing the bay, critics still see watermen as the easy target to blame.

However, I believe that by coming together as an industry, watermen have the opportunity to create lasting change that ensures plentiful seafood and healthy livelihoods for years to come. Stewardship by a strong commercial fishing industry is essential to abundant fisheries and thriving communities on the Chesapeake. As the businesspeople who drive the industry, it is the watermen themselves who can set the course and return our industry to viability and health. The industry has a choice; I say let's move forward together on the path filled with promise and sustainability so that the people, elected officials, and bureaucrats will support the Bay and our new way of doing business.

Larry Simns is president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. His email is

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