Crabs in bay called plentiful Federal study appears to contradict other Chesapeake research

January 19, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A new scientific study concludes that blue crabs are plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay, even as Maryland and Virginia weigh actions to further restrict commercial and recreational crabbing.

The study, a computer-assisted assessment of the bay's crab population conducted over the past nine months by a team of federal and state biologists, seems to contradict other research that suggests overfishing may be depleting the Chesapeake's most valuable fishery.

"Generally, we think crab stocks are in very good health," said M. Elizabeth Gillelan, Chesapeake Bay program director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which directed the study.

She presented the study's findings Wednesday night to a group of watermen, seafood packers and environmentalists advising the Department of Natural Resources on what new crabbing restrictions to propose this year. She also is scheduled to testify Tuesday, when the Virginia Marine Resources Commission meets in Newport News for a public hearing and vote on eight new proposals to limit crabbing in that state.

William Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, reacted cautiously to news of the report, which was compiled by nine biologists from Massachusetts to South Carolina. "If they're saying they found no evidence of overfishing, I would say that's welcome news if true," he said. But "there are just so many different sources of information that indicate we have a dysfunctional fishery, that there is something wrong."

Back to average

The number of crabs in the bay has declined in the past five or six years, Ms. Gillelan said, as other research has shown. But she said that a review of Maryland and Virginia surveys over the past 30 years finds that the crabs' population has simply returned to a level that is about average. Crabs were unusually plentiful in the 1980s, she said, and are now back at a level that was more typical in the 1970s.

Last year, Maryland watermen caught 40.2 million pounds of crabs, about 10 percent below the long-term average. But Virginia watermen landed only about 25 million pounds of crabs, an all-time low harvest for that state.

"We don't see any evidence of overfishing," Ms. Gillelan said. Indeed, she said, the study found that crab reproduction has been increasing in recent years, which would not have happened if too many crabs were being caught.

Watermen to be pleased

The findings are likely to please watermen, who have contended that emergency catch restrictions imposed last fall by the state went too far and hurt them financially. Many watermen have argued that crab populations fluctuate naturally. They contend that they saw many tiny juvenile crabs last fall, which they say is an indication harvests will rebound this year and next.

The study was welcomed by William Pruitt, Virginia's marine resources commissioner, who issued a statement that "Virginia's policies should be based on good science and sound empirical data."

But other scientists said they have reservations about the computer study, which is the first of its kind for blue crabs.

"The data we have [from 40 years of surveys] shows a continual decline," said Rom Lipcius, crab researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. "I trust our data because you can see them. I'm not tweaking any kind of model parameter and changing conclusions dramatically."

Only a few weeks ago, the team of East Coast scientists had concluded that while crabs have not been overfished, they were "fully exploited," meaning that the recreational and commercial catch were almost too great for the population to sustain.

But Ms. Gillelan said that conclusion was altered after outside scientists reviewing the preliminary findings said they were based on unrealistically cautious assumptions about the bay's crab stocks.

Dr. Lipcius said he likewise does not believe the crab population is near depletion, but he said, "we're concerned. We believe there has been a change in the overall population."

He and others contend the new study does not show there is no need for further restrictions on crabbing.

Restrictions still needed

"We need to continue to take a more conservative approach," said John R. Griffin, Maryland's natural resources secretary. "Obviously, if things are looking a little better, you don't have to be as severe in your harvest restrictions."

Natural resources officials say they hope to propose new crabbing restrictions by Feb. 15 for this year's season, which begins April 1. While state officials last year said they would seek to curtail the crab catch by 20 percent this year, Mr. Griffin said officials no longer are seeking a specific reduction.

Instead, they are focusing on bringing Maryland regulations more in line with Virginia's.

Virginia is considering limiting commercial crabbing licenses, expanding crab sanctuaries and setting new limits on all segments of its industry.

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