Lab at Inner Harbor may yield a solution to bay crab problems

Project aims to produce hatchery-grown juveniles

April 18, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The future of Chesapeake Bay's blue crab industry could be taking shape in huge blue tanks and tiny petri dishes in a laboratory at the Inner Harbor, where University of Maryland researchers are creating a science around the crab's life cycle.

They hope to use what they learn in the basement of the Center of Marine Biotechnology to re-stock the bay with hatchery-grown juvenile crabs.

"We're using the tools of biotechnology to study and better understand the fundamental process of the blue crab life cycles," says Yohnathan Zohar, director of the Center of Marine Biotechnology. "Our goal is to produce good numbers of juvenile crabs to release to the bay to study."

The project is based on one in Japan in which scientists annually release 50 million to 60 million juvenile swimming crabs, close relatives of the Atlantic blue crab, into the Seto Inland Sea. The crab population there crashed in the 1950s but has since rebounded, Zohar said.

The project could lead to a string of crab hatcheries around the bay. Combined with the restoration of the bay's vast grass beds, which once served as nurseries and hiding places for vulnerable juvenile crabs, that could be "our only salvation," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. The association has lent its support to the project in hopes of restoring the multimillion-dollar industry.

"There's probably 100,000 people involved in this," said Simns. It's the crabber, his helper, the people in the picking houses, the restaurants, their serving people. It's important to the state."

Maryland has contributed $100,000 in seed money for the project and $300,000 was donated by Steve Phillips, chief executive officer of the seafood restaurants and packing company that bear his family's name.

Phillips also is establishing a foundation to provide money for continuing blue crab research.

"Our family has benefited for years from the Chesapeake Bay," said Phillips. "And I understand we do have a problem in the bay."

The blue crab, which accounts for nearly half of Maryland watermen's commercial fishing income, has been in steady decline for 10 years, with last year's catch setting a record low.

The decline has led to efforts in Maryland and Virginia to stave off a population crash by cutting the annual harvest 15 percent and doubling the spawning stock. In Maryland, that has meant licenses and lower catch limits for recreational crabbers and proposed new restrictions on commercial crabbers. A coalition of lower Eastern Shore watermen and seafood packers has threatened to sue the state if the regulations, which set an eight-hour day for commercial watermen and require they take Sundays or Mondays off, become law.

Terry Conway, the coalition leader who runs a packinghouse in Crisfield, argues that the proposals, imposed by "city dwellers," will "put us out of business."

But Simns says his organization will support the proposals, which are scheduled to go before the state Administrative Executive and Legislative Review Committee on April 24.

"Anybody can say they don't want any regulations. I don't want any regulations," Simns said. "But I'm obligated to my membership not to lead them down the golden path to destruction."

Aquaculture projects such as this one and bay cleanup efforts are more feasible, he added.

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