Chesapeake Blues

Crab catch: Commerical figures alone don't indicate rise or decline in crustacean population.

January 07, 2000

THE angst over crab numbers in the Chesapeake Bay is understandable. The problem is not so much with the varying numbers but with their differing interpretations.

Last week, for example, Maryland reported that commercial watermen harvested 29 percent more crabmeat in 1999 than they did in the previous year. But, alas, last year's take was 11 percent below the eight-year average. So, do the latest figures signify hopeful resurgence or enduring decline?

The 33.7 million pounds of crab landed by Maryland watermen last year may not support either trend -- any more than the 1998 spring bounty of crabs (which was followed by a 20-year low in catch for that entire year).

These figures are only for commercial landings. They don't include catches by the army of recreational crabbers on the bay, or those semi-pros who regularly bring ashore bushel baskets of blues that they cannot possibly consume by themselves.

They also ignore the economic motivation of commercial fishers, who say they took less crabmeat than they could have because of depressed prices at crab-picking houses, a result of a global glut.

Against a backdrop of biologists' warnings that the bay's crab population may be near collapse from overfishing, attention is paid to every indicator of the health of the Chesapeake's most famous inhabitant. That's all very well, as long as the figures are recognized for what they are. Blue crabs live but two or three years; yet the annual variation in reported catches is considerable.

Maryland and Virginia, which share responsibility for the Chesapeake crab, have taken steps to limit the commercial catch. Now the focus is on creating crab sanctuaries where the crustaceans could recover naturally without fishing pressures.

These are reasonable resource protection measures that should help sustain the viability of the blue crab population in the bay. More may be needed. But the health of the crab, and the bay, must be measured by more than commercial catch totals.

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