CAMBRIDGE — — Jack Brooks watches as 60 of his employees use short, quick strokes to pick meat from piles of freshly steamed blue crabs. As they place the meat into plastic containers, men steer in wheelbarrows to shovel more crabs onto the long metal tables.
"We try to get everything out of the crab we can," says Brooks, co-owner of J.M. Clayton Co., a 120-year-old seafood distribution company founded by his great-grandfather.
Just outside this room, in the waters of the Chesapeake, blue crabs appear to be making a comeback, raising hopes that after years of decline, the industry that harvests them may rebound, too. Annual counts show the bay's crab population has jumped sharply in the two years since Maryland and Virginia imposed major restrictions on catching females.
But watermen remain unhappy about the restrictions, and their full effect remains to be seen.
Brooks says the increased abundance hasn't put an end to the challenges facing Maryland's crab industry, which dropped from 53 licensed distributors in 1995 to about 15 today. Competition from Asian imports, rising pollution, uneven local crab harvests and an ailing economy have pummeled the industry.
Sales of premier live crabs — often sold to restaurants — have recently disappointed. For weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, Clayton had an unsold pile of these No. 1 crabs, the big males known as jimmies. The company ended up picking them to sell their meat, as it routinely does for smaller crabs.
"We've been picking 65 to 70 percent of the No. 1 crabs we've been buying," Brooks says. "We don't want to pick any."
As distributors confront a weak economy that has hurt restaurant sales, watermen have been feeling the impact of the recession as well. Many remain skeptical that the female crabbing restrictions will accomplish anything — and they disagree with scientists on whether they were necessary in the first place.
While watermen chiefly blame pollution for the decline of the blue crab population, scientists and government officials counter that overfishing was the main culprit.
They note that crabs rebounded almost immediately after the restrictions were imposed. Scientists counted nearly twice as many adult crabs during the winter dredge survey in early 2009 as in early 2008.
"The increase in the crab population was clearly driven by the regulations put in place baywide," says Lynn Fegley, assistant director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' fisheries service.
Maryland and Virginia natural resources officials want the limits on female crabs to stay largely in place until it's clear the bounce-back is more than temporary. Maryland officials say they will temporarily lift one — a ban on harvesting female crabs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4 — but keep the others.
The two states angered watermen by imposing she-crab harvesting restrictions in 2008, a year in which the Chesapeake's total crab population was estimated to be 283 million, down from a peak of 852 million in 1993.
Scientists considered the level low enough to threaten the industry's long-term survival. State officials said they had to act or risk a decline that would trigger harsher measures, such as the 1980s moratorium that ultimately revived the bay's rockfish population.
"Marine biologists tell us any delay would have risked a catastrophic reduction in the crab population," says John Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
For watermen and seafood distributors, the restrictions felt particularly harsh — coming as they did after a sustained period of decline.
J.M. Clayton Co. had weathered years of turmoil, but not without casualties. In its heyday, it employed 150 crab pickers. Now, it's down to about 60.
Phillip Todd, 67, of Cambridge has been working on the water his entire life and remembers when there weren't many crabbing restrictions at all. The season ran from April 1 to the end of November; watermen could catch as many as they wanted, any time of the day or night, any day of the week.
But now, Todd says, "We've got restrictions everywhere you look."
Crabbing restrictions range from daily catch limits to periodic closures of the season. Crabbers who use certain types of gear can only fish in specific areas, and no commercial crabbers can harvest on Sundays.
Waterman Bob Evans of Churchton disputes scientists' conclusions that too much fishing caused the drop in crabs.
"Pollution has a lot to do with it, bad water quality," he says.
Eric Johnson, a fisheries ecologist at the Smithsonian Marine Science Institute, says it's hard to tell whether harvest restrictions, environmental conditions or a combination of both contributed to the rebound — especially because other species also saw big increases in the number of juveniles this year.
"The story's not quite written," he says.
This article was produced by the News21 team at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in partnership with The Baltimore Sun. For more information about the News21 Chesapeake Bay project, visit Chesapeake.news21.com