Costs to conserve pale next to costs of collapse

ON THE BAY

Safeguards: Environmental protection measures can cause short-term hardship, but the economic and ecological consequences of failing to conserve are far worse.

May 24, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

The Sun reported this week, in an article headlined "The cost of conservation," how new restrictions to save blue crabs are taking a bite out of crab pickers' and crab processors' incomes.

It won't be the last story on that painful theme, as Maryland and Virginia pursue a commitment to restrain harvests enough to boost spawning female crabs from the perilous, historically low numbers of the past few years.

The cost is more than dollars can measure. The loss of income in small, struggling watermen's communities tears at the social fabric and erodes unique lifestyles that are part of the Chesapeake heritage.

But then there are the costs of not conserving, with which we have become all too familiar.

Such as when politicians and natural resources managers along the whole East Coast allowed striped bass to be grossly overfished by both sportsmen and watermen.

Economic studies show that the coast-wide decline cost 7,500 jobs in fishing and tourism, and $220 million in lost economic activity - and that was before a five-year ban on rockfishing throughout the Chesapeake from 1985 to 1990.

Before that was the virtual wipeout of American shad in the Chesapeake, overfished until catches in the early 1970s fell to less than 1 percent of historical levels.

It left so few shad, prized for their roe and for the sport they provided on the end of a line, that there was hardly a complaint when Maryland closed fishing in 1979.

Before that was the Atlantic sturgeon, a species that thronged bay rivers to spawn in the spring, reaching lengths in excess of 10 feet and supporting a caviar industry on the Potomac almost within sight of Washington, D.C.

We might have lost the sturgeon forever. With shad, years of raising and releasing young from hatcheries might yet restore them - after an entire generation grew up without ever enjoying fishing for them.

With the rock, the five-year fishing ban came in time for the species to recover. A decade after it ended, they are again the bay's premier species.

So we learn, slowly and haltingly, from sturgeon to shad to rockfish, about delaying the costs of conservation.

It seemed we had learned our lesson when Maryland and Virginia pledged about 1990 to limit the intense and clearly growing fishing pressure in the $70 million-a-year blue crab industry.

It didn't happen. Maryland tried unsuccessfully in 1995. Critical cooperation with Virginia, which shares the bay and its highly mobile crab stocks, never gelled; and scientific research on the extent of the problem and on solutions was not good enough to carry the day for conservation.

We lost the chance to act - for the first time in bay history - in advance of a drastic decline; lost the chance to put crabbing on a sustainable basis before the threat of collapse forced harsher, less-considered actions.

Still, slowly, we learn. In the past couple of years, before things got to the point of a ban on crabbing, we have begun serious efforts to restore the species to health.

A key was creation of a Bi-state Blue Crab Advisory Committee, including a "who's who" of 29 leading state and federal crab researchers.

Despite operating with insufficient and uncertain funding, the committee has produced credible science and enough cooperation to move Maryland and Virginia into the first-ever commitment, with real goals and deadlines, to manage the bay's last, great commercial fishery on a sustainable basis.

It remains a work in progress. Some actions, such as the ban on picking Virginia-caught female crabs in Maryland - the subject of the "cost of conservation" article mentioned above - might have questionable positive impact, and should at least be re-examined next year.

Other actions, such as Maryland's disputed raising of size limits on crabs, should have a major payoff, scientists say, both in allowing more crabs to mature and spawn, and in producing bigger crabs, with more payoff to watermen in the long run.

Virginia is taking a different, harder-to-assess conservation tack, creating "sanctuaries," large areas off-limits to crabbing. It's a valid concept, but more experimental as to how many crabs it will save, scientists say.

For all of this to work, it will be critical to keep together the bi-state crab committee and its scientific group for oversight and analysis of what conservation the states are really achieving.

Created by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and composed of legislators from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the committee has a measure of independence from individual state politics.

And history (sturgeon, shad, rockfish) tells us that without science and oversight to tell us what needs doing, we wait until the species tells us by collapsing, taking a larger toll than any cost of conservation.

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