Rising prices, shrinking crabs

Shell shock: Bi-state management needed for foundering Chesapeake crustacean fishery.

September 08, 2000

THE MYSTERIOUS ways of the Chesapeake blue crab continue to puzzle scientists and policy-makers, watermen and consumers.

But there's no mistaking the marketplace: Maryland catches are at record lows for the first half of the eight-month season, and prices are sky high.

This fundamental Chesapeake fishery may not yet be overfished or at the crisis stage, technically. But the consensus of indicators is that the crab population is close to the precipice, not just in Maryland but also in Virginia.

The average size of males, or jimmies, caught has been shrinking over 25 years; the number of female spawners is down 70 percent over the past decade.

Fewer juveniles make it to the underwater grass beds where they grow up.

This is the case in spite of harvest restrictions placed by both states over the past half-dozen years. It's also in spite of the publicized inflow of Asian crabmeat and the 35 percent drop in the number of Maryland crab pots since 1995.

When the Bi-State Blue Crab Commission meets this month, it's expected to recommend further limits on crab fishing. Increasing the legal minimum size to 5 1/4 inches (from 5 inches) and reducing the licensed number of crab pots are two measures that merit serious consideration.

The commission represents a new effort at managing the Chesapeake crab fishery as an ecosystem, rather than as two separate state fisheries. Relieving human harvest pressures has worked to restore viable levels of rockfish and Canada geese. It can also work for the good of the Chesapeake crab.

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