A better way to manage the crab harvest

It's been five years since the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery was declared a disaster, and despite progress using science-based guidelines for protecting female crabs, the iconic Chesapeake crustacean is still not out of the woods. The Baltimore Sun's call for management change ("Blue outlook for blue crabs," Sept. 18) hits the mark; the bay's blue crab needs better management based on baywide total catch limits, allocations among the states and licensed fishermen and much greater accountability for all blue crab harvesting.

The idea of fishing allocations for the Chesapeake Bay blue crabs isn't new; University of Maryland economist Doug Lipton and fishery biologist Tom Miller made a compelling case for quota-based management after the 2008 blue crab population crash. Messrs. Lipton and Miller stated in a Washington Post commentary and subsequent Bay Journal article that science-based annual population surveys must continue and be used as the basis for setting a cap on the number of crabs that can be harvested each year. They recommended that the harvest cap be divided among jurisdictions and licensed crabbers and that complete and timely harvest reporting be required to monitor the catch and ensure that harvest caps are not exceeded.

The 2008 Maryland Task Force for Fisheries Management, a group of commercial watermen, recreational fishermen, scientists and conservation groups, also recommended pursuit of quota-based management in key fisheries. And in 2011, the late Larry Simns, long-time president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, penned an important op-ed in The Sun supporting alternative management strategies.

The Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other regional and national conservation organizations have advocated for taking science-based blue crab management to the next level in three ways: developing annual catch limits based on population abundance, allocating that catch among the jurisdictions that regulate commercial crabbing in the bay region, and stringently and comprehensively monitoring all harvesting. Such a system could eliminate the "race-for-fish" that happens each spring, when thousands of crabbers and crab pots jockey for space — and crabs — throughout the bay and many of its tributaries.

This approach works. After a three-year pilot under a catch limit divided among community members, Rhode Island flounder fishermen reported increased revenues and improved quality of life because they didn't have to fish in bad weather or miss important family events in order to participate in the race-for-fish. In fact, there is a growing body of scientific research that has consistently found that such management increases compliance among licensed fishermen, reduces damage and waste within the fishery, and results in better outcomes, financially and otherwise, for participating fishermen.

This approach can work in Chesapeake Bay as well. We have the science to set catch limits based on annual population surveys. We have decades of harvest data from across the bay by which to establish jurisdictional allocations. And both Maryland and Virginia are increasing the use of electronic reporting that will allow careful accounting of the total catch.

Certainly, there will be challenges — including setting allocations and changing the race-for-fish mindset in crabbing — but these hurdles can, and must, be overcome if fishery managers, watermen, scientists and conservation stakeholders work together to see it through. Using the good science that has been developed for the crab fishery to create a quota system for the bay has the potential to stabilize the fishery at a healthy level as crabbers realize they don't have to fish as many pots and more crabs grow to larger size. It's good for the crab and good for the crabber. We need to take crab management to the next level if we want to build and secure the long-term health and vitality of the Chesapeake's blue crab population for future generations of blue crab eaters and harvesters.

Jenn Aiosa (jaiosa@edf.org) is the Environmental Defense Fund's senior conservation manager for the Chesapeake Bay Mark Bryer (mbryer@tnc.org) is The Nature Conservancy's Chesapeake Bay Program Director.

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