For watermen, better data means fewer restrictions

If there's one thing nearly everybody in the Chesapeake Bay region can agree upon, it's that summer isn't summer without blue crabs. Unfortunately, this regional staple has experienced its share of problems over the past few years, impacting supply, prices and the livelihoods of all those who work in the crabbing industry. Thankfully, recent leadership from Maryland watermen has put this fishery on a course to produce more crabs and more profits.

For more than two years, Maryland watermen and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with support from the Environmental Defense Fund, have been working on techniques to improve crab harvest accuracy and reliability. Watermen have long contended that the regulatory system for the commercial blue crab harvest was too burdensome and unpredictable. Fisheries managers were not able to determine how many crabs were being harvested at any given time. As a result, catch restrictions were put in place to overcompensate for uncertainty in order to ensure the population wouldn't become overfished.

Industry leaders and fisheries managers have agreed to prioritize improved data collection; if you don't know how many crabs are being caught each year, you can't possibly know how close you are to harvest targets. Without this information, fishery managers are essentially guessing at the best ways to keep crab harvests sustainable from year to year via harvest restrictions on crabbers. These restrictions make crabbers inherently less efficient, negatively impacting a crabber's ability to make a living.

To remedy this, last year Maryland's Blue Crab Design Team — a commercial blue crab industry group, in partnership with DNR and the Environmental Defense Fund — launched an electronic harvest monitoring program in which crabbers would voluntarily report how many crabs they landed each day, updating their catch in real time using on-board mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. This system, part of a pilot program now in its second year, replaced the monthly, paper reporting system for participants. The antiquated paper system is time-consuming, inefficient and limits DNR's ability to make in-season harvest adjustments even when commercial harvests are below established targets.

The pilot program was so successful that 135 watermen are now participating, up from 49 last year, with even more watermen awaiting training on the system. DNR plans to take the program fleetwide by 2015. The hope is that once the state can track landings with greater certainty, it will be able to ease the regulations watermen find so challenging, such as limits on when or how long they can work. Already, DNR has begun to ease up slightly, allowing watermen participating in the 2013 expanded pilot to choose their day off each week without committing to a fixed schedule in advance, which gives them the flexibility to spend time with their families as needed, sit out poor weather days or keep the boat at the dock for needed repairs without cutting short a work week and sacrificing income.

Maryland's efforts to improve harvest accountability are on the cutting edge. In Virginia, an online data reporting system has been in place for years, but watermen were largely unaware of it. Efforts are now underway to educate crabbers on how to use this digital reporting system so that better data collection can benefit the entire Chesapeake blue crab fishery. Other fisheries, such as the West Coast whiting trawl fishery, have also sought to increase accountability, largely through onboard monitoring. While this has been tremendously successful as well, monitoring of this type is both expensive and labor intensive. Maryland watermen have demonstrated that mobile devices so many people already own can be an efficient and affordable tool in improving the quality and timeliness of harvest reporting.

More timely reporting of individual crab catches will improve the collective accuracy of crab harvest data. Better harvest data will allow fisheries managers to set catch limits based upon facts, not estimates. In turn, this should also decrease the number of restrictions on commercial watermen. Improved predictability will result in a more efficient fishery, a better business environment and a consistent supply for crab lovers. That's an outcome to be proud of.

Jenn Aiosa is the Environmental Defense Fund's senior conservation manager for the Chesapeake Bay. Her email is

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