Maryland’s “beautiful swimmers,” or Callinectes sapidus, are a hardy bunch. They’ve been known to survive hurricanes, sharp variations in salinity and temperatures, and even live out of water for several days if kept cool and damp. But like other Chesapeake Bay species, they are not immune to the adverse impact of humans — and not just because they are so delicious steamed. And so the latest news for Maryland’s beloved blue crab is mixed, at best. This year’s winter dredge survey, as recently reported by authorities in Maryland and Virginia, found their overall numbers in significant decline with a total population of 282 million compared to 405 million last year, a 30% drop, with juvenile crabs down to their lowest numbers in 31 years (which is as long as the survey has been conducted). The one bit of good news, that the female crab population rose from 141 million to 158 million or 12%, is welcome but hardly a game changer. In sum, the crab supply is not abundant. Some caution is needed.
That’s not to suggest that, on this Memorial Day — the unofficial start of summer — Marylanders need to refrain from dining on their favorite seafood. There will still be soft shells and steamed crabs, crab cakes and crab dip to go around. Old Bay is never out of seasoning. But for those who make their living catching crabs or processing them, this is unlikely to prove a bountiful year, and consumer prices are likely to be high. But then the seafood industry understands the year-to-year variations. Weather can make a big difference in how well crabs reproduce in any given three-year life cycle. So can the presence of predators or the loss of underwater grasses. In years like this, there will ultimately have to be stricter limits placed on the catch to spare female crabs (easily the more vital half of the reproductive process) and protect the overall population from falling too far that they can’t bounce back.
What ought to concern Maryland residents more than the abundance of blue crabs in any given year is the need to address something over which watermen and others in the seafood industry have no power — protecting crab habitat and keeping the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries clean enough to support the species in the years to come. One of the most important goals, for example, ought to be specifically in protecting submerged aquatic vegetation where young crabs can survive to adulthood protected from predators. Excess nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus pouring into the water from such sources as farm and residential runoff to failing septic systems or sewage treatment plants, are a common source. They lead to algae blooms that cloud the water, block sunlight from reaching the underwater plants, and then die and decompose causing “dead zones” where crabs can’t survive for lack of dissolved oxygen.
And that’s putting it in simplistic terms. Climate change has worsened matters with more ferocious storms that flood the region in warm, polluted water. Growth in the watershed (more people means more pollution, and the region is expected to rise from 18.3 million today to more than 22 million by 2050) that runs all the way from New York and West Virginia to Virginia Beach before mixing with the Atlantic Ocean has also made the situation more dire. The margin for error has gotten smaller. Crabs are mercifully unaware of all this, of course. Humans don’t have that excuse. Caution is in order.
So here’s our recipe for a fun and carefree summer: Get vaccinated, follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding the pandemic, travel safely and, yes, indulge once in a while with a plate of crabs (steamed jumbos with a pitcher of something cold, is seldom, if ever, a bad choice in this regard). But while you’re at it, take a few steps this summer to help protect the health of the species and of the Chesapeake Bay. Consider, for example, picking up neighborhood trash, planting trees, creating rain gardens, educating others including young people about these issues and donating to the nonprofits involved in local restoration and conservation efforts. Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is not unlike a crab feast: the more the merrier. And knowing that you’ve acted wisely is certain to make the crabs taste that much better. Oh, and consider eating crabs in the late summer and early fall when today’s young crabs are full grown and slightly cheaper (your bank account will thank us later).
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.