For years, word was you couldn't get any two people within a 100 miles of Chesapeake Bay to agree when the issue was blue crabs. With the possible exception of oysters, no other subject created such heated arguments and disagreement on even the most basic matters of fact. I myself have sat through hours of meetings devoted to what would seem the simple task of measuring in some consistent manner the condition of crab stocks in Maryland and Virginia. Of course, it is not that easy to deal with a critter with a life as complex and varied in different times and places.

And it has always been worth the effort, because this is, after all, the last great fishery of the Chesapeake; in a good year we still produce half the blue crab landings in America. A big chunk of our economy, our distinctive culture and our Bay traditions are tied up in its welfare.

As much as anything, it is the crab which keeps us from becoming just another piece of coastal real estate between Long Island and Florida.

Over time, I have found that a lot of the contentiousness over the crab was related to genuine confusion in a number of areas. First, there were issues related to catch - how much, average size, and average catch per pot (or other "measures of effort"). There was seldom a consistent message from all this data, and a great deal of debate over whether the data reflected reality, anyway. When catch went up, size often went down and average catch often followed. Hardly the ingredients for consensus.

Another area of difficulty came from mixing up measures of the state of the stock of crabs with measures of the economic health of the crab fishery. If the number of crabs stays constant, then 2,000 watermen catching them are going to be a lot richer per capita than if 20,000 are going after them. And then there was the debate over the relative importance to the health of the crabs of natural events versus water quality versus habitat versus the impact of the fishery. This could go on endlessly, as everyone agreed that all played a role and all were interrelated.

Underlying much of this was the fact that there had been no modern stock assessment done on the blue crab in the Chesapeake, or for that matter, anywhere else. So in the absence of scientific information, the options for how to manage the blue crab were bewildering, to say the least.

In the face of all this, it is simply amazing that so much progress on crabs has been made in the past two years. There has been a remarkable coming together of good science, good management, good planning and good politics.

Both Maryland and Virginia took action to reduce pressure on the crab population from harvesting when it became clear that increased activity was not increasing the catch. Rather than wait for more studies, both states acted to conserve the stocks until more could be understood about what was going on. This preventive strategy marked the first time that firm action had been taken to protect a Bay species before it crashed, and was a real change in approach for fisheries management. There were then, and there continue to be questions over whether the actions taken were too much too fast, or too little too late, but the general sense is that the steps have proven the value of acting conservatively. More important, they have led to a series of integrated actions between the two states that has continued and grown.

One of the most important of these is the formation, under the auspices of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, of a Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee. This group meets regularly and comprises representatives of the key public andprivate sector interests in each state. As such, it provides a forum for discussion, exchange, learning and consensus-building on solutions that contribute to consistent and coordinated management of the blue crab throughout the Bay. The committee's Technical Work Group provided critical comments on the new Baywide Management Plan for Blue Crabs.

Another important technical group is the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, chaired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This group has overseen the development of the first comprehensive stock assessment of the blue crab in the Chesapeake, which is currently under review. The assessment concludes that overall crab stocks are in good shape, although they have returned to normal levels after being higher during the '80s (which may account for some perceptions of a decline). The assessment also concludes that the crab is exploited now about as much as it should be, and that it is blessed by a fishery with relatively inefficient and passive gear.

While the assessment answers many questions, it also raises a number of others for debate, including such critical issues as the maximum age for crabs, their mating and the adequacy of conservation measures. As part of the review and afterward, these and other issues will continue to be studied and debated by the scientific community.

From my own perspective, the culmination of all these efforts has been the new Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan, which is currently undergoing review and approval by the Chesapeake Executive Council. This plan, developed through the tireless efforts of the Fisheries Management Plan Workgroup of the Bay Program's Living Resources Subcommittee, represents a number of "firsts," not only for the Bay but for fisheries management nationwide.

Interestingly, the plan does not call at this time for any changes in the existing crab regulations of either Maryland or Virginia. What it does do is take all of the results of all the groups above and put them in the context of the Bay ecosystem - the mix of land and marsh and grassbeds and water, salt and fresh, which provide the life conditions for the blue crab. This sets the only proper basis for managing the fishery.

The plan lays out the life cycle of the crab and its status throughout the Bay. Then and only then it describes the nature and economics of the fishery which is harvesting the crab. If none of this seems very innovative to you, you don't read many fishery management plans. Usually they badly mix up the fish and the fishery, and assume that any economic benefit to the latter justifies virtually any ecological cost to the former.

The plan makes clear that, while the crab is in reasonably good shape, as is concluded in the stock assessment, the fishery is overcapitalized, meaning that there is too much invested in boats and gear for the value of any expected catch. Both Maryland and Virginia have taken steps to limit the entry of new harvesters to the fishery, but additional actions may be needed to overcome this problem.

On a related note, because the stock assessment stressed the importance of the relative inefficiency of the current passive gear to the stability of the crab, the plan cites the need for the states to be wary of the introduction of more active or efficient gear technologies.

The new crab plan also includes a rundown on the remaining issues undergoing further analysis and debate in the scientific community, serving as a sort of scorecard for those of us who are not scientists, but want to follow the discussions.

Finally, the most innovative element of the new plan is the treatment of crab habitat. Recent studies show that the number of crabs using grassbeds for protection and habitat is five to 30 times those found in non-vegetated bottoms, so the location and extent of the submerged aquatic vegetation is key to the overall health of the stocks.

The plan identifies the key grassbeds serving as habitat for the crab at critical periods of its lifespan. These areas are specifically mapped in the plan. When it is signed by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and by Carol Browner of EPA for the federal government, the survival and protection of these grassbeds becomes the responsibility not only of the fisheries management authority, but of all other state and federal agencies with the resources or the responsibility to contribute to their protection and restoration.

I am unaware of any other fishery management plan outside the Bay where this is true. It is a product of the unique partnership of the Bay Program and the fact that we take fishery management plans seriously enough to have them approved at the highest level.

As you can probably tell, I think we have a lot to be proud of here in the Bay over the way we have come together to protect the crab as a source of economic, cultural and culinary beneficence. We should be thankful for the leadership in Maryland and Virginia that saved the crab before it threatened to crash. We should be supportive of the institutions set up to work together to solve issues that had been only debated for decades. And we should get out there and make this new plan really work for all of us - the watermen, the citizens around the Bay, and especially the blue crab.

Bill Matuszeski is director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.