Attempts to achieve sensible Baywide regulations for the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population date back to 1924, when Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie left Annapolis harbor aboard the state’s steamer for what was billed as a historic meeting with Virginia’s Gov. R. Lee Trinkle. Unfortunately, a violent storm swept across the Bay, canceling the meeting and leaving Governor Trinkle with a broken arm.
At the rescheduled conference in Annapolis, Maryland’s legendary Conservation Commissioner Swepson Earle issued this ominous warning, “This great industry may yet be saved for the watermen of both states, but the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia must act in 1926 or it will be too late.” Earle’s predictions, though premature, clearly delineated the management differences that had evolved between the two states, as well as the interdependency of the fishery.
Today, Virginia continues to allow the harvesting of egg-bearing crabs and its controversial winter dredge season; both practices that have long been banned in Maryland.
And as the crab population continues to fall, the once great industry that Earle referred to remains without Baywide rules—Maryland and Virginia have yet to implement a management approach that overcomes their competition for this increasingly limited natural resource.
Calls by the Chesapeake Bay Commission in the early 1980s for Virginia and Maryland to adopt a unified management strategy for the Bay’s living resources went unheeded. The Bi-State Fisheries Advisory Working Group that formed in 1984 was disbanded in 1986 when Virginia and Maryland representatives could not overcome their management differences.
Then, after a decade of prodding by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the failure of many of the Bay’s major fisheries, the Chesapeake Bay Program completed the Bay’s first unified fishery management plan in 1989, only to have its suggestions mostly ignored by the states.
By the mid-1990s, with declining harvests and rising prices, it appeared that the states were beginning to take seriously their management responsibilities. Beyond the emergency measures that the states pursued (i.e., shortened the season, limited the workday, and prohibited crabbing by one day per week), it was more apparent than ever that a coordinated effort was required to successfully manage the crab.
Coordinated management took a major step forward in 1996 when the Chesapeake Bay Commission created the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee. Unlike the advisory committee that had failed a decade earlier, the new committee was able to provide a forum for representatives from the two states to discuss the management problems facing the crab. The committee, which received $150,000 per state annually, completed several studies of the industry and issued suggestions for protecting the blue crab stock.
In 2001, with crab numbers near historic lows, BBCAC recommended a 15 percent reduction in fishing pressure to be phased in over three years to help restore the Bay’s crab stock. The 15 percent reduction goal guided management for the next two years.
BBCAC was a management success story, applying the best available science while at the same time considering the economic needs of the watermen and the values of the environmental community.
Unfortunately, the committee has been disbanded, having had its funding eliminated first by Virginia then Maryland.
This happened despite its management successes, despite the desires of the scientific and environmental communities, despite the fact that crab harvests this year are likely to be the lowest in history, and despite the fact that elected officials were able to find over a million dollars in federal disaster relief money to fund what amounts to the first ever welfare payment to Maryland and Virginia watermen.
It appears we are back to politics as usual, where the short-term economic interests of the few trump the long-term interests of the Bay’s natural resources. Unfortunately, the policymakers are now gambling with the Bay’s last great fishery.