The Chesapeake cosmopolite One species: Despite recent progress, we still try to manage the crab as if lines on a map mattered most.

On The Bay

November 10, 1995|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

What's wrong with this story?

In recent weeks the news media all have reported crab harvests will be somewhat below average in Maryland, and way below average in Virginia.

As any crab could tell you, it's the bay, stupid; and the bay's crabs are not Virginians, nor Marylanders, but a single species.

They are born in Virginia and travel throughout the estuary and its tidal rivers to grow and mate. Mature females return to Virginia to hatch their eggs.

Crabs have been doing it this way for thousands of years, unmindful of the MD-VA line across the bay.

Despite recent progress like the inception of baywide, winter crab abundance surveys, we still think about and try to manage the crab too much as if lines on a map mattered most.

Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, who bears much of the responsibility for this column, has for longer than almost anyone advocated treating the crab like the true Chesapeake cosmopolite it is.

He began in 1940 as a biologist with Maryland's first bay research laboratory at Solomons, where he was assigned "to learn everything about the crab you can."

In 1947 he proposed a continuing, bistate program of research to understand the crab. The proposal reads well today, save for a few parts such as studying the "effect of the recent war [World War II]" on harvests.

Had Maryland and Virginia carried it out, perhaps we could have avoided the current, bitter wrangle over how much crab catches need to be curtailed.

Again, in 1968, a period when crab catches were low baywide, Dr. Cronin and his colleagues in Virginia proposed a bistate research program.

But with a rebound of harvests a few years later, money and interest flagged.

And so, here we are in the 1990s, understanding enough to be concerned that crab stocks in the bay are being fished too hard, but unable to make a truly compelling case; or to propose solutions with the certainty we would like, with the very livelihood many watermen at stake.

That doesn't mean Maryland was wrong in finally moving this year to cut the harvest of female crabs by 20 percent; or that Virginia, now mulling additional restrictions of its own, should delay.

Far too often the bay's -- and the world's -- fish and shellfish have been managed by political expedience. Conservative actions are taken only after a species declines or collapses.

It is often politically easiest for governments to act after the damage is apparent to everyone. But the consequences of that can be terrible indeed.

For a profound example, I recommend reading Susan Pollack's fine piece "The Last Fish," in the July-August issue of Sierra Magazine, on the total collapse and shutdown of Canada's cod fishery.

For years, despite warning signs, "he was reluctant" to act because of the pain it would have brought to an already beleaguered fishing industry, John Crosbie, Canada's former fisheries minister, is quoted as saying.

And now, 40,000 people are out of work, perhaps permanently; and wives of Newfoundland cod fishermen have moved as far away as British Columbia to get work as maids.

The blue crab, though clearly under unprecedented pressure and showing clear signs of stress, is not in imminent danger of collapse.

And that is precisely the point-- to act conservatively for a change, before we have to act drastically.

Still, as Dr. Cronin points out, this could be done more effectively and more equitably had we paid more attention to understanding the ecology of the crab and to managing the species more as a single fishery.

In a letter he wrote recently to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Dr. Cronin proposed a modest step -- a bistate crab advisory panel. It would have two important functions. One would be "communication."

"I have been shocked at the ignorance of persons in Maryland about the Virginia crab industry and the equal ignorance of some in Virginia about what is really happening in Maryland," he wrote.

An example is the way Marylanders and many Virginians focus only on the pregnant female crabs taken in Virginia's winter dredge fishery, when many more pregnant females are taken by spring and fall crab potters in both states.

We might also find increased economic benefits in restricting some crabbing practices and expanding others if we began to look at the fishery as a whole.

The other critical aspect of a bistate crab panel, Dr. Cronin says, would be to provide "continuity."

Crabs are so volatile, marked by extreme highs and lows in catches throughout this century -- "We need continuous joint review and action through the lows and the highs," he wrote.

Such a panel, he says, would be no magic solution; but he is convinced that once we begin to consider the crab and crabbing in their proper context -- one species, caught virtually year-round throughout one bay -- "a lot will begin to fall into place."

To a large extent, the crab is a surrogate for the bay itself. From oceans to millponds, no class of water body is more subject to large swings in its chemistry and biology than estuaries like the bay.

Measuring its health is, for the most part, not sexy, involving continuous monitoring, data collection -- everyday pulse taking, which if you think about it, is the first thing any doctor does, no matter what ails you.

And it needs to be done all the time, not just in bad times. If one had to identify the single worst threat to the bay during most of this century, the best answer might be lack of reliable, comprehensive, continuous information.

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