Blue crab harvest likely dismal

Pollution, weather blamed for worst catch in 25 years

December 18, 2003|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Pollution and bad weather forced so many Maryland watermen to stop crabbing this past summer that the state's Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest will be the worst in 25 years, fishery managers say.

The 2003 season, which ended Monday, is expected to produce a harvest of about 18 million pounds from the bay's Maryland waters, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

That's a sharp drop from last year, when crabbers brought in about 24 million pounds. It is the lowest crab harvest since 1978, when the catch was 17 million pounds.

The harvest fell not because there were fewer crabs in the bay, but because fewer watermen were trying to catch them, said Phil Jones, a DNR fisheries manager.

"Crab abundance appears to be comparable to what it was in the past three years, but the number of crab pots were lower," Jones said.

Watermen and fishery managers were hopeful of a late-season boom in September, when the catch nearly doubled the previous month's take. But the first two-thirds of the season were so dismal that many watermen had taken jobs on shore, said Larry Simns, executive director of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

"If they were lucky enough to get a job this summer, they just hung onto it," Simns said. "Ride out anywhere on the Eastern Shore and you'd see more crab pots on shore than you would in the water."

Three years of restrictions on the crab harvest appear to have stabilized the crab population, although experts say it is at near-historic low.

A cold spring got the 2003 season off to a slow start, as overwintering crabs stayed buried in the bay's muddy bottom later than usual, Jones said. That was followed by record rains that washed pollutants into the bay.

The runoff triggered large algae blooms, which consumed most of the oxygen in wide swaths of the bay, making it impossible for crabs to live there.

Very few crabs were killed, Simns said, but a great many retreated to areas where watermen could not catch them.

Finally, Tropical Storm Isabel cost many watermen days or weeks in late September, when crabs are traditionally abundant and catches are high.

Some watermen took their crab pots out of the water before the storm. Others lost their pots and had to replace them, while still others had to deal with flooded homes and damaged boats before they could get back to work, Simns said.

The harvests were so bad that, in an unprecedented move, the state gave full-time crabbers two $500 emergency payments, in June and November, to help them pay bills. The money, from a federal grant, has all been spent, with no more in the pipeline, Jones said.

Managers are also forecasting the worst Chesapeake Bay oyster harvest ever, a scant 20,000 bushels to 25,000 bushels.

"It's just a tough year for watermen," Jones said. "Blue crabs and oysters are the mainstays of the industry."

This week, scientists began a winter survey that will help predict next year's catch. A less-exhaustive summer survey found signs that the number of young crabs is on the upswing, Jones said.

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