Bay crabs: protect the females

It has been a good summer for Chesapeake Bay crabs. They have been heavy and sweet, a gustatory delight. Beyond the dinner table, the picture is looking better as well. A recent scientific study done for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population is healthy but that the female crabs still need protection.

Conservation measures put in place a few years ago limiting the catch of female crabs and banning dredging for crabs in the winter have worked. More female crabs will yield more spawn, and that will eventually translate into an overall increase in the crab population. Scientists say that if the current protections stay in place, the bay's crab population should grow by 50 percent over the next four years.


The downside of these protections for female crabs is that they could cost the bay's watermen income, at least in the short term. But as Thomas J. Miller, University of Maryland fisheries ecologist and lead author of the study, has observed, if female crabs are protected when they are carrying eggs, the number of crabs in the bay will eventually increase, producing a more bountiful harvest for the watermen.

The concept of trading a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain is hard for watermen to accept when they have mouths to feed and fuel bills to pay. Yet it is one that Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, sees the wisdom of. "You have got to protect your spawn," he says, adding that most Maryland watermen are willing to accept limits on their catch as long they are sensible and function to preserve the resource.

While watermen can live with crab quotas, Mr. Simns said, they need to be freed from regulations that micromanage their labor, such as setting limits on the number of hours they can work in a day or shutting down the crab harvest for two weeks in the spring, a move that has the effect of cutting off the pipeline to crab buyers.

In years past, Chesapeake watermen survived by catching crabs in the warm weather and harvesting oysters in the colder months. In recent years, the precipitous drop in the bay's oyster population has virtually eliminated that tradition and has increased pressure on the crab fishery. A small sign of improvement in that area appeared this week, when the amount of red tape that Maryland oyster farmers have to navigate was cut back. The process to get a permit for an oyster farm, which had taken up to 12 months at the state and federal levels, is now expected to take no more than four months, Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials said. Mr. Simns, who wants to set up an oyster farm, said the change in the process was welcome. But he cautioned against expecting immediate results. It usually takes three years for an oyster farm to make a profit, he said.

In the near future, the health of the Chesapeake Bay crabs will depend more on the actions of Maryland and Virginia officials than on any upswing in oystering. Thomas O'Connell, fisheries director for the Maryland DNR, told The Sun's Timothy Wheeler that the recent NOAA study shows that the crab population is not abundant enough to weather declines without added curbs. This winter's annual crab survey will probably determine whether current catch limits are adequate, Mr. O'Connell said.

In Virginia, more immediate action could be taken this month when the Virginia Marine Resources Commission votes on whether to bar winter dredging. A yes vote would mark the fourth straight year that the Virginia watermen would be barred from dredging slumbering crabs, many of them females from the bay bottom.

That is the right vote. Chesapeake Bay crabs don't honor state lines. And as the recent study shows, protecting the female crabs goes a long way to rebuilding the entire bay's crab population.