Not A Feast Just Yet

Our View : Yes, Crabs Are More Abundant, But Some Caution Is In Order

April 21, 2009

At the risk of being the killjoy at the next crab feast, let us suggest some restraint over the comeback of the blue crab is in order. While the winter dredge survey results released last week by Maryland and Virginia officials suggest the number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has rebounded over the past year, it appears the number of young crabs has only held steady.

The lesson here is that restrictions imposed last year on crabbing have made a difference, but the long-term impact isn't entirely clear. The number of female crabs in the bay appears to have doubled - which is exactly the kind of improvement the controversial rules were intended to have.

But those restrictions were imposed not so that more people could have she-crab soup this fall, but so those adult females will be available to spawn. The crab population has been in decline for too long to expect the species to snap back in abundance in a single season.

The governors of Maryland and Virginia seem to recognize this. Both have made cautious remarks about how the positive results are only a "first step" and have praised watermen for enduring the economic cost of conservation.

But they stopped short of insisting that harvest restrictions be fully maintained for another season. And officials from the two states are talking about how a "modest increase in the harvest of female crabs" may be permitted under regulatory changes to be announced next month.

That would be a mistake. Not to be glib, but young crabs need their mothers. If female crabs aren't there to produce eggs, fewer crabs are created. That's just a fact of life.

No doubt the governors are under pressure from the seafood industry, and the financial hardship felt in rural towns on Maryland's Eastern Shore or Virginia's Tidewater is probably acute. The temptation to provide some relief is great.

But what good are the sacrifices of the past if they don't lead to a fully revived crab population? Just as Maryland didn't roll back the moratorium on striped bass in the 1980s until it was clear the fish had made a big comeback and a new generation was reproducing, the state should be conservative with its crabs today.

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