Fate of Md.'s blue crabs hangs in the balance

Think you know how to eat a crab? In 1952, a "star crab picker" from the Eastern Shore showed The Baltimore Sun what he believed was the best way to shell a crab, so as to get every last bit of meat out. No mallet required, but you do need a sharp knife. The latest in our continuing "from the vault" series.

Much has been made over the Maryland Department of Natural Resources making some minor tweaks to limit the harvest of female blue crabs this fall in response to warnings from the Blue Crab Advisory Report, which urged reductions because of a precipitous decline in juvenile crabs in 2017 — down 54 percent from last year.

Maryland had liberalized crab harvests as the abundance of adult female crabs increased, and this slight tightening has led to much consternation among watermen, who successfully lobbied for the firing of a dedicated, decades-long DNR fisheries staffer in February. The woman was let go after she failed to go against sound science and bow to a small minority of crabbers seeking more harvest by lowering the size limit for crabs taken after July 15, including females.

Baltimore's longtime crab houses have a lot going for them this year as they seek to entice customers with the lure of tradition and the aroma of steamed crabs and Old Bay seasoning. Owing partly to tighter catch limits, the Chesapeake Bay's crab population has rebounded in the past few years from perilously low levels.

Forgotten in this most recent controversy, however, is that in 2008, the governors of Maryland and Virginia jointly called for a federal disaster declaration for the blue crab fishery. The Bush administration acceded, and $10 million was allocated to both states. We are now confronted with a desperate need to prevent another collapse in this, our last remaining major fishery.

The history of fishery management globally has been generally one of gross mismanagement, dominated by economic forces compelling the maximization of harvest. Overharvest has devastated, even eliminated fisheries, around the globe.

Federal rules to protect endangered fish complicate restocking

The Chesapeake Bay serves as a case example:

  • The bay sturgeon fishery collapsed more than 100 years ago, with both species listed as endangered;
  • The shad fishery was a major fishery into the early 1900s that collapsed due to stream blockages and mismanagement. Despite a moratorium in Maryland since 1980, the fishery has not come close to recovery;
  • Soft shell clams were a bay staple until populations plummeted from the influx of freshwater to the bay from tropical storm Agnes in 1972. This and the failure to restrict harvest led to another collapsed fishery;
  • And the oyster population has been reduced to approximately 1 percent of historic levels due to overharvest, habitat destruction, sediment pollution, and disease. Despite the injection of more than $60 million in federal monies to assist in recovery efforts, this keystone species filtering the bay’s waters has seen only very localized and small biomass recovery.

The rockfish is a notable exception as the population recovered only after a total moratorium on harvest began in Maryland in 1985 and spread to other states. After five years, the fishery recovered and was re-opened. But even with this rare success story, a worrisome trend exists in low rockfish reproductive success in four of the last five years.

At the root of the decline in female blue crabs are two factors: overharvest and poor environmental conditions. But it's not too late to turn things around.

The struggle to properly manage fisheries is made much more difficult by centuries of land abuse, especially the clearing of forests and filling of wetlands for agriculture and, more recently, for development. The excess sediment and nutrients flowing from farm land and urban areas make efforts to assure healthy fishery stocks, while allowing harvests, much more difficult. These pollutants prevent bay grasses from thriving, eliminating essential nurseries for crabs with 40 times more juveniles than on barren bottom.

An amazing 80 percent of Maryland's oyster bars are rendered unproductive by excessive sedimentation from agriculture and developed lands. To restore the grasses and oyster bars, we must substantially reduce nutrients and sediment, which largely comes from agriculture. Until we adopt tougher regulations and enforce them in agriculture, the bay will never recover. Financial incentives should continue — the carrot — but they have not and will not result in anything anywhere near what is necessary without the stick.

We also must greatly increase pollution reductions from other sources, including urban stormwater runoff, and assure that all new development does not increase pollutant loads.

Rollng back Waters of the U.S. rule could prove damaging and not just to the environment

Unfortunately, it is watermen who suffer the most from these declines. Harvest pressure has shifted to crabs, a high value catch, as watermen cannot make a living off the other fisheries.

But allowing the harvest of up to 35 bushels a day of females by one boat should not be permitted. Recreational crabbers are prohibited from keeping any females; bushel limits also must be imposed for the harvest of males to reduce pressure on them as there are currently no such limits.

Yes, hard-working watermen will take a hit, but until we restore water quality, we have no other choice.

Gerald Winegrad is a former Maryland state senator who sponsored or managed much of the bay legislation of the 1980s and early 1990s. He is a recreational crabber tending the two crab pots allowed him off his own pier in Annapolis and strictly adhering to all restrictions. His email is gwwabc@comcast.net.

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