Grasses' depletion puts bay in a scrape

Watermen: As underwater vegetation disappears, so do soft crabs -- and those who seek them.

June 07, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

It used to be you could see 200 skiffs any summer morning scraping for soft crabs in Pry Cove off South Marsh Island in Tangier Sound. One morning last week, there were three.

As the underwater grasses vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay disappear, so do the soft crabs and the watermen who scrape for them.

"The boys get an education, they look for better jobs," reasons 86-year-old Daniel Harrison, who "sailed this bay for 71 years" on the skipjack Ruby Ford out of Smith Island.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 645 people called Smith's marshy archipelago in the middle of the bay home in 1970. The population is now less than 400.

The grass beds, which provide shelter for young crabs and fish when they are at their most vulnerable stage, as well as food for ducks and geese, began declining in the late 1960s from a high of 600,000 acres.

Last week, the state Department of Natural Resources announced that 63,945 acres are left. Tangier Sound, the prime nursery area for crabs, has taken the worst beating: Its underwater grass acreage declined by 30 percent in the past year.

The loss of grasses is directly related to the decline in water quality and water clarity, says Bill Street, restoration manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

As the amount of suspended solids -- algae blooms created by nutrients from fertilizers, eroding soil and runoff -- increases, the amount of life-giving sunlight penetrating the water decreases and the grass beds shrink.

Replacing them is an uphill battle, says Peter Bergstrom, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The more grass disappears, the more bottom sand is churned by wave action, making the water even more opaque, killing more grasses and making it all but impossible for new grass to grow.

"As we lose grass in Tangier Sound," Street says, "it has repercussions throughout the bay."

Not only do crab scrapers suffer, but the whole industry suffers, says J. C. Tolley, a Dorchester County crab wholesaler.

"I've noticed a tremendous difference in the last five, six years," says Tolley, who has operated Meredith and Meredith Seafood in Toddville since 1963. "The amount of crabs in Tangier Sound is just not as many as it used to be."

The number of crabbers has dropped to about half of what it was 10 years ago, at least on Tangier Sound, says Charles Marsh, a Smith Island waterman.

"A lot of crab potters have gone to dredging for soft-shell clams, or they're using pound nets for fish," Tolley says.

Tolley says he can keep his business operating about nine months of the year, from the first scrapes in April to the winter dredge in Virginia. But disappearing grasses are "troubling, to say the least."

Tolley says he remains optimistic because "the fecundity of the blue crab is so great that you can go from a scarce amount one year to a great amount the next, if the conditions are right."

Lee Tyler also must be optimistic. Every morning he rises before the sun and motors out to a cove just off Smith Island, or maybe near Shanks Island, one of the few places where the grass beds are what they once were.

As the sun arcs higher in the sky, he drops one scrape -- a Y-shaped metal frame with a net at the open end -- off the port side of his skiff, then another off the starboard side and lets their lines play out.

He takes a "lick," hauling the scrapes across the grass bed. He pulls one of them hand over hand up on his boat's rail, dumps the dead grass and bottom muck and sorts through it. He tosses back the tiny pipefish, eels and flounder and culls the few crabs.

Green crabs, those about to start their first molt, go in one bushel basket. Rank crabs, which will shed their shells in two or three days, in another. Busters, the ones breaking out of their shells, go into one tank of water, and soft crabs, which have just shed their shells, into another. A pump keeps water burbling through the tanks.

When he finishes, he drops the scrape overboard, lets the line play out and turns around to haul in the starboard scrape.

For hours, Tyler, 41, works back and forth across the bed in a hypnotic motion. Drop the scrapes, take a lick, haul in one and go through the muck. Drop it back and haul in the other, cull through the muck and go again.

He's been doing this since he was 13 and says he'll stay on the water no matter what. "I make a pretty good living, here," he says. "That's why I stick with it."

He even predicts a good season, despite what the scientists have said. "It's a lot slower than what it used to be, but I've been seeing more little crabs this year, and that'll be good later."

But Jesse Marsh is not so optimistic.

Marsh was 7 when he started crabbing in the waters around Smith Island with his father, James. Jesse stood on the bow of the skiff with a net, skimming swimming "doublers," mating male and female crabs, as they floated by while James hauled the scrape in over the transom.

Jesse dropped out of school after seventh grade to take over the business from his father, but four years ago, when he turned 30, he decided he had to get out. Now, he's the captain of the Karen N, a research vessel the Chesapeake Bay Foundation operates.

Most of the boys he grew up with have left the water, he says, a lot of them landing jobs at the state's Eastern Correctional Institute in Somerset County.

"I grew up in the soft crab business. All my growin'-up memories are of that," he says during a recent bay foundation tour of the sound. "But when I got older, I could see the grass beds were the only way I could make a living and they were going away. I didn't want to be 50, in debt with no education and have it all play out on me."

Pub Date: 6/07/99

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