Crabbing conundrum

March 16, 2003

HERE'S THE problem: Chesapeake Bay crabs are overfished. They need a break to relax, recover, make love, make babies, grow big and start the cycle over and over again.

But Chesapeake Bay watermen say they are underfishing. They need to catch more crabs, and catch them younger and smaller, in order to make a living and keep up their own cycle of love and babies and life.

Putting aside the bias of our own yearning for a bushel of those steamed delicacies after a snowbound winter, this is a dilemma that cries out for a third way.

Yielding to the watermen, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposes to do, might provide some relief in the short term but could ultimately ensure the demise of their livelihood and way of life.

One surefire solution is upgrading bay water quality, restoring the bay grasses so crucial to the crab's survival. A healthier bay means a more robust crab population and no need for harvest limits.

Easier said than done, of course. But Governor Ehrlich is in a unique position to provide regional as well as national leadership on bay cleanup efforts, which are sorely in need of a champion.

Maryland governors have traditionally been thrust into that role with more or less enthusiasm. As a Republican, Mr. Ehrlich can be among the most effective by establishing the link between environmental protection and economic development. Just as the crabbers need a healthy bay, so do the tourist industry, the housing industry, the recreation industry, etc.

Further, Mr. Ehrlich doubtless carries some clout with the Bush administration, which can be enormously helpful in winning more federal assistance for cleanup efforts.

There are some steps the governor can take right away. At a meeting this week of federal and regional officials overseeing the 20-year-old bay cleanup agreement, Maryland should aggressively support a proposal to reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus going into the bay by about half.

The governor should also begin fulfilling his campaign promise to upgrade sewage treatment plants, the easiest way to make a substantial and speedy reduction in nitrogen levels. This sounds more expensive than it is when costs are spread out among users.

As for the crabbers, there was an upside to their low harvest last year: higher prices, at least some of which should have gone to them.

But if their financial situation becomes truly dire, state officials might want to consider some kind of subsidy in return for a full or partial crabbing moratorium. Sounds extreme, perhaps, but the federal government has been softening economic blows for farmers for decades.

What's certain is that the bay's bounty is not unlimited. The oyster population is already nearly gone, prompting watermen to depend more heavily on crabs. Waiting until the crabs are gone, too, hurts all of us.

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