The good news from the outpouring of letters and commentaries in area papers about blue crabs is that people really do care about this icon of Bay country. The bad news is that the misinformation and divergence of views expressed shows clearly that we have failed to achieve the level of understanding and consensus needed to sustain the kinds of changes necessary in the way we manage the crab fishery.
The only way we will save the crab fishery and the livelihoods of the Bay’s crabbers is through honest, open dialogue of the sort that has been attempted over the last two years by the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee (BBCAC). Parochialism and intransigence only hurt the crab and the crabber.
Many watermen and watermen leaders have participated in the BBCAC process, and while none are eager for more restrictions, there has been an honest attempt to find solutions that will work.
On the other hand, some people have taken the approach of pointing to other factors such as predation as the culprits in the crab decline.
While there are certainly other factors that must be addressed, it would be irresponsible, and the watermen would be hurt the most, if we failed to address clear deficiencies in the way we manage the crab fishery.
The following issues have been raised most frequently:
Pollution: Sewage effluent and mosquito spraying are two water quality issues that have been cited as detrimental to the crab.
Nutrient pollution from sewage is certainly one of the Bay’s big problems that can affect crabs by destroying critical underwater grass habitat.
But other sources of nutrients such as farm runoff, suburban lawns, and atmospheric inputs are as much or more of a contributor in given areas. Poultry waste runoff, for example, is surely more of a problem for the important Tangier Sound grasses than sewage.
Mosquito spraying similarly is one of a number of possible toxicants that should be looked at for possible effects on crabs. Pollution and habitat issues are of more direct importance to the seafood industry than to anyone else, and we encourage active involvement by watermen in solving these problems.
In fact, the Maryland Watermen’s Association has been weighing in on these issues for years. Sadly, however, the reality is that reversing these habitat problems will take decades, and the crab fishery cannot wait that long.
Recreational Crabbing: All participants in the crab deliberations, including representatives of recreational crabbing, have supported taking action to license and regulate this part of the fishery. Legislation passed in both states will now do exactly that.
But the contentions that recreational crabbers are taking “record amounts of crabs” and as much as “half the crab supply” are erroneous. There are no data to support these statements.
Most likely, the relatively inefficient recreational crabber drops out of the fishery when crab supplies are down.
So, the issue is not what they are taking now but rather being prepared so they don’t harvest excessively when crabs do rebound.
Rockfish Predation: The finding from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science that 73 million small crabs are eaten annually by rockfish in grass beds has been cited as proof that this is a major problem for crabs.
While this seems like a large number, the VIMS study also estimated that it amounts to only 4.6% of the total number of small crabs found in Bay grass beds. For comparison, the commercial fishery takes about 50 percent of the legal-size crabs annually.
Crabs smaller than 2 inches are normally subject to high levels of predation. For this reason, a single female crab produces on average 3 million eggs to overcome these losses to predators.
Crabs larger than 2 inches, though, have few natural predators and would probably reproduce if not caught in either the commercial or recreational fishery. These are some of the data that lead to the conclusion that predation is not as great a factor as the fishery.
Science: There seems to be general agreement that a science-based management strategy for blue crabs is a good idea. But when the best available science doesn’t agree with preconceived notions, the common reaction is to attack the science.
Three things can be said with assurance about the science being applied to blue crabs: 1) It is the best we have ever had for blue crab management; 2) It has consensus support from the scientific community; and 3) We can always use better data.
While the last point may seem to weaken the science, it is axiomatic that one never has absolute certainty in biology. Moreover, the continued collection of data should not be used as an excuse to dismiss the best available science, but rather should be viewed as a means of refining management approaches in future years.
A group of 27 scientists worked for two years and came to consensus on the targets and thresholds adopted by BBCAC — the first time we have had such valuable guidelines.
Recently, the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, the technical watchdog of the Chesapeake Bay Program, reviewed the work and concluded, “… the recommended management measures proposed to stabilize the fishery and stock are founded on sound scientific information and analysis.”
This should be viewed as a positive outcome — that we are finally poised to manage the fishery based on solid quantitative estimates of the true stock size.
All of the accumulated information paints a clear picture of a fishery that is paralyzed by far too much effort.
It is not anyone’s fault. It is just the result of other fisheries declining and watermen being forced to put more and more effort into crabbing over the last two or three decades.
The current situation boils down to this: Crabbers are working much harder than they need to to catch the available crabs; crabs are caught almost as soon as they are legal size; and the reproductive potential of the crab population is diminished to dangerously low levels.
The catches in general are low and poor quality, and although there may be temporary jumps in abundance, the population remains unstable.
The BBCAC strategy for reducing effort across the board is an attempt to reverse this situation so crabs are more abundant, grow larger and reproduce more successfully.
Crabbers would not have to work as hard and would have a more stable and, hopefully, more profitable livelihood.
The key is that all crabbers are cut back at roughly the same rate. The crabs they do not catch stay in the water longer but are still there to be caught later.
Watermen are naturally concerned about cutting back their income and think people are trying to put them out of business.
In truth, this whole effort is an attempt to stabilize and improve the fishery and provide a better livelihood for crabbers.
Everyone needs to understand this and work together to make this outcome a reality.