The July 23 effective date of new Maryland commercial crabbing regulations prompted a flurry of media coverage from L.A. to Crisfield, depicting the Chesapeake’s blue crab situation as an example of the classic conflict between fishermen and fisheries managers.
Many who earn a living fishing the Bay believe that the low harvests result from a waning of the natural cycle of crab stocks. But for those who study the Bay and its fisheries, mounting evidence points to a species at risk of collapse.
Yet the conflicting wisdom of watermen and scientists pales in comparison to the consensus that has been achieved on this issue.
Recent conservation measures enacted by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, Virginia and Maryland were prompted by the recommendations of an unprecedented coalition of commercial and recreational crabbers, conservationists, fisheries scientists, and legislators who constitute the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee (BBCAC).
Based on an intensive two-year study of the blue crab resource, overwhelming scientific evidence resulted in the committee’s recommendation that we must preserve 20 percent of the adult spawning stock of blue crabs to sustain the population.
At current fishing levels, we leave roughly 10 percent in the water to spawn. Doubling the spawning stock will require an estimated 15 percent reduction in the recreational and commercial harvest.
Recent scientific assessments by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) lend even more urgency to the BBCAC’s findings. Statistics indicate crab abundance approaching the lowest levels ever measured. The number of mature females has declined 70 percent, falling below the previous historical low of 1968.
A major concern is that the smaller size and lower abundance of crabs may compromise their reproductive potential. Researchers are now seeing mature females at startlingly small sizes — some just larger than a matchbox. Maryland’s crab harvest last year was the worst in 20 years and CBSAC’s scientists confirm that, Baywide, the stock is fully exploited.
At BBCAC’s public forums throughout the region last fall, representatives of both the commercial and recreational crab fisheries urged their members to accept shared responsibility for protecting what they acknowledged was a threatened blue crab resource.
The public was asked to comment on a broad range of management options to identify areas of consensus among stakeholders.
The results of these meetings formed the basis for legislative and regulatory proposals adopted by the Bay partners this year.
To minimize economic impacts to the crabbing industry, each jurisdiction pledged to achieve a minimum 5 percent reduction each year to meet the 15 percent goal within three years.
Notably, many watermen, while reluctant —– after all, their livelihood is at stake — expressed their support.
In Maryland, the resulting proposal for an eight-hour workday and mandatory day off was met with unexpected opposition that resulted in the delay of implementation. To make up for reductions lost in the delayed start of the regulations, the November season closure has been proposed.
This is both unfortunate and necessary.
Unfortunate, because the economic burden of the eight-hour workday, spread throughout the season, would have been more equitably divided among all watermen. The November closure hits the watermen who fish Maryland’s Lower Bay the hardest because that’s where the crabs are concentrated in November. Necessary, because the reduction must be accomplished to prevent a compromised fishery in the future.
Throughout the current policy debate, the ultimate goal has been to not only rebuild the blue crab population, but to improve the economic vitality of the fishery as well. The states’ actions are based on a sincere belief that the risk of fishing at a threshold above which we do not know if the stock can rebound is unacceptable and threatens the livelihood of watermen for years to come.
Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission must all be applauded for their definitive response to the warnings that the crab population is reaching a level below which there is no historical experience to demonstrate a capacity to recover. We must all support them in their actions.
Ongoing efforts to improve water quality and restore vital blue crab habitat must provide long-term solutions.
The impact of predation, while not insignificant, has been overrated. Scientific studies, in fact, estimate that only 4.6 percent of juvenile crabs in the seagrass beds studied were consumed by rockfish. Compare this to human predation, which removes 50 percent of the larger spawning age crabs from the Bay each year.
Humans’ taste for crabs is insatiable and growing. To meet this demand, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are more than 200,000 crab pots in the Bay — a third more than a decade ago — and current licenses allow as many as a million.
This year, to everyone’s credit, we began a course of conservation. But to ensure that crabs are on our table in the future, we must pursue the full harvest reductions called for — 5 percent is only part of the way.
We must face the facts that we are currently operating at an unacceptable level of risk. The CBSAC has warned that, given the faltering blue crab resource, one significant environmental event, such as a hurricane or flood, could trigger a collapse of the population.
Let’s prove our commitment to the blue crab and the crabber. Keep in mind that only 20 percent must be protected to ensure a vibrant fishery. As the crab’s spawning potential increases, and the population rebounds, everyone will benefit. Can’t we do that?