Report sounds alert on bay, crabs

Pollution, overfishing leave crustacean 'fighting for survival,' environmentalist says

December 30, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,

Pollution and overharvesting in the Chesapeake Bay have devastated the blue crab population by killing crab feed and eroding key habitats, a leading environmental group said in report released yesterday. And, the group said, the federal government has failed to enforce environmental laws that would help remedy the problem.To prevent the dead zones that kill clams and worms that crabs eat and the algae blooms that kill crab habitats, the Environmental Protection Agency must impose a regulatory cap on the amount of pollution entering the bay and enforce the Clean Water Act, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's report.

The report, "Bad Water and the Decline of Blue Crabs in the Chesapeake Bay," also cites overfishing of crabs as a major factor in the decline of the blue crab. But it theorizes that a healthier bay would produce more crabs, and, in turn, reduce the need for harvest reductions.

"The blue crab is really hardy and resilient but is really fighting for its survival," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We'd like to see the biggest fight for clean water we've ever seen. We share the anger and frustration of the watermen, who run the risk of being the most endangered species on the Chesapeake Bay. But if there are fewer [crabs] there, you can't keep taking as many."

The report, conducted by a dozen leading crab researchers and water quality experts using government data, comes a week before a 60-day self-imposed deadline expires for the foundation to file suit against the federal government for not living up to a series of bay restoration agreements.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in October that it intended to sue the federal government for failing to fulfill its obligation to reduce pollution in the estuary. A spokesman for the EPA did not return a call yesterday seeking a comment on the report.

For the second consecutive year, Maryland plans next year to reduce by 34 percent the number of female crabs harvested, allowing more crabs to reproduce. The restrictions, which are still being worked out, are expected to set daily limits on how many crabs watermen can catch and to ban females from being caught during certain periods.

The bay's crab population has decreased from 791 million in 1990 to 260 million in 2007, costing Maryland and Virginia about $640 million from 1998 to 2006, according to the report.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who contributed to the report, said in an interview that while it's "clear and obvious" that pollution in the bay bears some impact on the population, its effect would be "difficult to quantify."

"If the bay were clean, the theory is, we would have more crabs in the bay," Boesch said. "But the lesson that we should still learn is: We should only take as many crabs as to allow a sufficient number to spawn for the next generation, so there would always be prudent limits on the percentage of available crabs."

Frank Dawson, an assistant secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, said the state's blue crab harvest numbers for 2008 were still being compiled and would not be released to the public until after the new year.

"There isn't any one simple answer to the problems that confront us," Dawson said. "The regulations the last two years that we've moved forward with to rebuild the population of crabs in the bay are an important foundation. But in the end, that's not going to be the only solution to the problem."

Baker, who criticized what he called the "politics of postponement," said the EPA has been absent for the past eight years. He said he is hopeful that the incoming administration will put more resources into cleaning the bay. Baker called President-elect Barack Obama's forthcoming stimulus package "a tremendous opportunity" to "save the bay and save the iconic blue crab."


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