Feeling the pincer

October 08, 2007

A pair of river otters at the Maryland Zoo are dining like epicures these days. They're feasting on hundreds of soft-shell crabs taken from a Crisfield seafood dealer caught trying to sell the undersize inventory. Soup kitchens might have gotten the haul first, but the crabs' year in the deep-freeze of evidence storage made them more suitable for the fur-bearing set.

Officials regard the dealer's actions as an isolated incident, but two factors may have contributed - high prices and a downturn in the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population in recent years. Maryland and Virginia watermen are expected to have landed slightly more than 48 million pounds of crab by the time the season ends in mid-December. That's about the same as last year but well below historic averages.

That's not a crisis for the industry, but it's a worrisome trend that should give state regulators pause. The ability of the species to reproduce in sufficient numbers may be compromised unless significant action is taken.

Watermen rely on crabs for their livelihood more than ever before, and this has put an enormous amount of pressure on the crab population. Over the years, hard-working watermen have simply gotten better at what they do (thanks in large measure to technological improvements, from more effective crab pots to GPS locators).

Officials at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources say they are considering placing restrictions on next year's harvest and are seeking input from watermen. But it's time to consider action more significant than simply raising minimum size limits by a quarter-inch.

A first step would be for Virginia to curtail the harvest of sponge crabs - females loaded with eggs - that are traditionally dredged up during the winter. Each crab taken means 700,000 to 2 million fewer eggs to hatch and potentially develop into adults.

But the DNR strategy should also include a restriction on the number of watermen who can catch crabs by limiting the number of commercial crabbing licenses issued. That's bound to be a controversial idea, but it would protect the species better than a patchwork of rules. Competition would be capped and licenses would even have value - watermen could sell them. It's an approach that's been successful in other states with other species.

As any otter will gladly attest, Chesapeake Bay crabs are good eating. They deserve a chance to be fruitful and multiply. It doesn't require all that much sacrifice - crabs are too tough and too fecund for their numbers to be down for long. But without some reasonable constraints, this important species (and the watermen who harvest it) faces a less certain future.

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