Winter, a season for reflection Issues: Crabs, a species important ecologically, socially and politically, and land use, which reflects our nature, were prime concerns of the past year.

On the Bay

January 05, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

LET US SAY, Happy New Year, and move on from artificial divisions of the calendar.

For marking time, it is the changing of the light and the seasons I prefer, and the comings and goings of fish and fowl that move on the sun's angle and the wind's breath.

In November, in lower Dorchester County, with official winter a month off and sunny skies forecast, a virtual blizzard of birds descended on us.

Overnight, on the fading edge of a frigid nor'wester, several hundred swans had appeared on the cove; and the marsh had blossomed with migrating songbirds.

The lodge where we were had a dozen toasty, comfy bedrooms; but I spent the next two nights outside -- the swan-sound and moonlight (and goose down in my sleeping bag) were as good as any Christmas gift I would get.

This March, on a day that likely won't coincide with the official date of spring, a southwest breeze and something in the slant and length of the daylight will prod the swans back toward Alaska's North Slope, to nest in the brief, fecund Arctic summer; and the cove will lie quiet of their music, as if at the end of a great exhalation.

Whether one reckons it by calendar or by swan-fall, winter is as good a time as any for stocktaking and reflection -- on the last 50 or so weekly columns, in my case.

Of those 50, fully seven concerned crabs -- a lot of space for any single species when one's purview is the land, water, air, people and creatures within a six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed and estuary.

But crabs were, and are, a big issue, a keystone species ecologically, socially and politically. In 1995, for one of the few times in the history of fisheries management anywhere, Maryland tried to manage growing pressure on the blue crab before a crisis was obvious.

Did the state move too far, too fast? I don't think so, but no one can say for certain, though the science of predicting crab populations is beginning to come into its own.

Any overreaction, though, plays more hell than ever with the livelihoods of bay watermen, reduced almost to total dependence on crabbing in recent years.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with education programs based in watermen's communities, and active in calling for more crabbing regulation, found out what it meant to be caught between a rock and a hard place, as an outbuilding at its Smith Island center was leveled by arson.

Many people, including supporters of the foundation, say environmental groups should worry about clean water and stay out of the seafood business. That view is expedient, but dead wrong. It is possible with modern technology to overharvest even pristine ecosystems.

This year promises to be at least as crabbily controversial.

We will see whether Virginia will join Maryland's conservation effort; also whether the oft-stated goal of managing the crab as a true baywide species gets more than lip service. We also will see whether sustainable and fair (to both watermen and sportsmen) management of the bay's commercial fisheries is possible. Or will we go back to awaiting the next crisis?

For all the shouting about crabs, past and future, it is just possible that the most important thing going on had to do with an incident that didn't even make it into any of my seven columns.

A waterman speaks

At one meeting, a waterman stood up and offered the theory that more striped bass, known as rockfish, ought to be harvested because they eat menhaden, which graze algae for their food.

Algae, he said, is too thick in the bay because of sewage and farm runoff. It is lowering oxygen levels and shading out light to the grass beds that are important to the crabs.

I didn't agree with his bottom line on rockfish, but the waterman's degree of ecological understanding of the estuary and its problems would, little more than a decade ago, have eluded many a scientist with a doctorate.

In the long run, that kind of spreading awareness may be as important as anything that gets said at all the crab hearings in 1996.

Tied with crabs, at seven columns in 1995, was land use. From our yards and farms to our natural landscapes, nothing better reflects our own nature, as individuals and as a society, than how we keep the lands in which we live and sport.

It is not a pretty reflection these days, with town centers decaying as sprawl consumes inordinate amounts of open space.

There is no lack of statistical documentation of this, or of the fact that sprawl costs more money than it generates.

The challenge, and it is a difficult one, is to make the problems and the solutions meaningful to people on a very local level, in their communities and counties.

Issues of 1996

Some issues I mostly ignored in 1995, but won't in '96:

* Agriculture -- How is this major source of bay pollution progressing across Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia on its mostly voluntary pledge to clean up?

* Environmental education -- The big picture is onward and upward, but is it really changing people's behavior, instilling values? And how do you measure that?

* Kayaking -- My latest love. It makes canoeing feel like driving a dump truck. Paddling one is closer to wearing a suit of clothes than sitting in a boat, the most kinesthetic way of experiencing the bay I've ever found. And it is blessedly easy on 50-year-old knee joints.

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