Today's catch: Fewer crabs

Our view: Bistate efforts help, but harvest restrictions just a start

April 17, 2008

While the Chesapeake Bay's fish and shellfish populations have long been in decline, our elected leaders have seldom taken sufficient measures to protect them. This week's announcement that Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine will direct their respective regulatory agencies to reduce the harvest of female crabs by 34 percent is a welcome development.

Blue crabs aren't yet a threatened species in the Chesapeake, but spawning stocks could soon become so depleted that they are in danger of becoming one. Too high a percentage of the crab population is winding up in someone's pot covered in Old Bay.

The prospect of real partnership between the states on this issue is noteworthy. The southward fall migration of mature female crabs makes this very much a shared enterprise - and one that Maryland's southern neighbor has often been reluctant to restrict.

But this approach is no permanent solution. Blue crabs may well bounce back in a few years - and then thousands of Maryland's licensed watermen and recreational crabbers will, too, leading to yet another downward swing.

What's needed is a long-term sustainability of the fishery. The bay suffers not only a scarcity of crabs but an excess of crabbers.

The legislature recently agreed to set aside $3 million to help watermen hurt by the new rules. The money can be used to encourage some to pursue alternatives such as oyster farming. But that should just be a beginning.

Maryland and Virginia need something equivalent to industrial cap-and-trade rules: Set strict individual harvest quotas (based on the annual survey) and grant watermen the right to trade or sell their allocation to others. That would leave fewer watermen on the bay, but the ones left behind would be able to earn a living.

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