Between the protests of watermen over new harvest restrictions and the high cost of a dozen steamed jimmies at a restaurant table, most Marylanders are well aware of the decline of the treasured Chesapeake Bay blue crab. But the decision by the U.S. commerce secretary to declare the fishery a commercial failure this week can only serve to underscore this unsettling reality.
What will it mean for watermen? Some may soon be eligible for financial assistance from the federal government - if Congress appropriates the money to pay for it. That should mean a greater investment in such alternative employment as shellfish aquaculture projects and rebuilding the bay's oyster beds.
It probably won't spare all involved in crabbing, from watermen to those employed in crab-picking plants, from economic hardship. But the decision by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to reduce the harvest of female blue crabs by 34 percent this year was needed if the species - and the local seafood industry - is to be preserved for the long term.
After all, the real threat is not the current state of the blue crab but the risk that the adult population might fall so low that the species can't rebound. Loss of habitat and poor water quality have certainly been factors in the decline, but so has overfishing. The disaster has been declared; whether it can be overcome remains to be seen.