It's time to stop tinkering and just ban crabbing for one year

Given trends over last two decades, moratorium on crab harvest is worth a try

May 03, 2014|Dan Rodricks

A couple of years ago, the governor of Maryland stood on a dock on South River, a bushel of steamed crabs at his feet, telling everyone it was OK to eat Chesapeake blue crabs again — sort of like the mayor in "Jaws" telling everyone it was OK to go back in the water.

"I am glad to report that the population of the blue crab is now at a 19-year high," the governor said in April 2012. There was so much excitement about the comeback of the blue crab that the state launched a "True Blue" marketing campaign, identifying and promoting restaurants and markets selling Chesapeake lump.

That was then; this is now: For the second year in a row, the blue crab population is in a serious slump, and the number of females has dropped below the level science believes necessary to sustain the overall population.

This is particularly frustrating because, for a few years at least, the crab population seemed to be rebounding from its near-collapse in 2008. Both Maryland and Virginia cut back their regulated harvests. By 2012, the annual winter survey showed an estimated 764 million crabs baywide, the highest number since 1993. The count included a promising class of juvenile crabs: about 587 million, the most in 22 years.

But obviously something happened — again.

I say "again" because we've been here before.

I'll go back to 1995 and a phrase I've never forgotten: "perilously close to collapse." That's how the Chesapeake Bay Foundation characterized the blue crab population that year.

In 1998, we heard another memorable term: "Fully exploited."

That term appeared in a report from the regional Chesapeake Bay Program. By "fully exploited," it meant harvest levels needed to be stabilized to sustain the fishery. Scientists warned that Maryland and Virginia watermen could harvest no more than they were already taking without threatening future generations of crabs.

That same year, Maryland recorded its worst crab harvest on record, with "only" 26 million pounds taken to the dock.

Keep in mind that, even with all the stress on the blue crab throughout the 1990s, we still took an average of 42 million pounds of them out of the bay annually.

In 2007, the bay foundation reported that the crab population had decreased from about 790 million in 1990 to 260 million. The harvest that year was one of the worst in decades, and the annual winter survey cited a real concern for the future — a significant decline in the number of juvenile crabs.

In 2008, at the urging of the governor and members of Congress, the U.S. Commerce Department declared the crab fishery a federal disaster, making Maryland's watermen eligible for millions of dollars in aid.

All kinds of reasons have been floated in different years for the problems with Chesapeake crabs — pollution, algae blooms, depleted bay grasses, the loss of oyster reefs, severe-winter die-offs, overharvesting, growing numbers of ravenous rockfish and red drum that eat baby crabs.

Despite the trend that led Gov. Martin O'Malley to stand outside a crab house and virtually declare victory in 2012, the news two years later is not good. Last year's estimated harvest of 19 million pounds makes it the lowest on record.

The harsh winter of 2013-2014 gets some of the blame. But the trend in crab numbers, especially those of juveniles, was headed down last year, before the polar vortex arrived.

I have not written about crab issues in a while, but people occasionally stop and ask me this question: "Are you still not eating Chesapeake crabs?"

These are readers with good memories. They recall my call for a moratorium on the consumption of Chesapeake crabs back in 1998, the year the fishery was declared "fully exploited."

I had a simple idea: Stop harvesting and eating crabs for 365 days. We had a five-year moratorium on rockfish (1985-1990), and they made a comeback. We should try something similar for the blue crab, and either provide one-year relief for the affected watermen or offer them jobs planting trees or working on other projects to improve water quality in the bay.

Lots of readers wrote to say they agreed with the idea.

Of course, there was no moratorium. There was wise tinkering — a reduction in the catch, especially the deep-water harvest of females, and more cooperation between Maryland and Virginia. But we did not stop crabbing altogether.

I don't presume to be a scientist. I'm going by what I've read and heard about this problem over the last two decades.

Humans have been harvesting Chesapeake Bay blue crabs since the first of our species looked at one and decided it would be good to eat. (I hope I get to meet that guy in the afterlife; I'd like to ask what he was thinking at the time.) After centuries of catching them and eating them, let's give the Chesapeake Bay blue crab a break for one year.

The scientists, fishery managers and politicians have tried just about everything else. They should try a moratorium.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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