The steps taken thus far to reduce the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab harvest are not enough to avoid potential disaster, bay scientists are warning.
In a soon-to-be-released report, a committee of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the population of the bay's signature species is reaching lows not seen since 1968 and that phasing in a 15 percent harvest cutback over three years is extremely risky.
"We have to do more, and we have to do it quickly," Judith Freeman, director of NOAA's Chesapeake Bay office, said yesterday.
The NOAA scientists, studying data from four surveys conducted last year, found that the number of mature female crabs is below the 1968 level, the previous historical low. The number of 1-year-old male crabs also is approaching that low, the scientists said, and the number of juvenile crabs is declining.
One significant environmental event, such as a hurricane or a flood, could trigger a collapse of the bay population, the report says.
"We're skating on thin ice," said Derek Orner, an NOAA fisheries biologist and chairman of the crab study. "We've seen it get to the 1968 level and rebound, but that was the lowest we've seen, and we don't know what's going to happen if it goes lower than that."
Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, briefed a group of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia legislators on NOAA's crab stock assessment Thursday.
But Terrence N. Conway, chairman of a Crisfield seafood company, who has opposed regulations to limit the crab harvest, challenged the findings.
"We're finding that a lot of these numbers they're throwing around are not based on raw data - they're very politically motivated," said Conway, spokesman for a coalition of watermen and seafood processors. "We're on the front lines here. We know a lot better than people sitting in offices."
A team of University of Maryland scientists reported in 1998 that blue crabs had been overharvested for most of the previous two decades and that the catch would have to be cut sharply to preserve the most commercially valuable species in the bay.
Maryland's crab harvests have dropped steadily over the past three years, and last year was the worst in at least 12 years, barely reaching 16 million pounds. From 1993 through 1999, the average harvest was 28.8 million pounds.
`I don't see this as a crisis'
Joseph T. DeAlteris, a University of Rhode Island fisheries biologist hired by Conway's group, has insisted that cuts are unnecessary because crab populations are cyclical. He has pointed to the 1993 spike in the crab harvest after a bad year in 1992.
"I don't see this as a crisis when you realize there's a large variation in crab populations," he said. "We're catching every crab that's available out there right now."
Prompted by earlier scientific warnings about declining crab stocks, Maryland and Virginia agreed in December to reduce their crab harvests by 15 percent over three years to help preserve the $150 million-a-year industry.
But the three-year phase-in was "not a scientific decision," Freeman said.
"The original report from the scientists was: `You need to reduce the fishery, and this is what you need to reduce it by,'" she said. "But as always happens with these things, you [get] the scientists and the policy folks and the fishing community together, and they say: `How can we accomplish this and not hurt people unnecessarily?' And that's how it got to 5 percent a year for three years."
Since then, Virginia has imposed regulations aimed at reducing its crab harvest by at least 6 percent this year.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission will close its crab-pot and peeler-pot fishery for six Wednesdays beginning late next month, has reduced the watermen's workweek from six to five days, trimmed the maximum daily catch in the winter dredge fishery from 20 to 17 barrels and imposed the first limits on recreational crabbers.
Measures in Maryland
Maryland's General Assembly adopted this year a licensing program for recreational crabbers age 16 and older and set catch limits. But a legislative committee rejected emergency regulations on commercial crabbers.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening overruled the committee two weeks ago and will impose regulations that limit watermen to eight-hour days and tighten requirements so they take off one day a week as of July 23, the earliest the rules could take effect without legislative approval. He also ordered the season that began April 1 to be shortened by one month, at the beginning of November, to make up for the delay in the rules taking effect.
Administration officials said the actions would reduce Maryland's crab harvest by 5.5 percent this year, their original goal.
Few Maryland watermen are fishing for hard crabs yet because there aren't enough "to satisfy the market," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
"There's an abundance of little crabs in the lower bay, but they probably won't make it," he said. "We got an awful lot of croakers and striped bass eating them. Plus, the crabs eat each other."
But Conway said the harvest of peelers and soft crabs in the lower bay is "huge so far this year.
"It's outstanding. It's enormous. Peelers are going to be a record harvest. We're seeing enormous numbers."