Vol. 8, No. 22
June 1-7, 2000
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Our Crabby Refrain: Keep ’em Comin’ Forever

In this issue, we celebrate the rite of Chesapeake summer: the crab feast. In a 4,000-word special feature, Bay Weekly editor Sandra Martin takes Chesapeake newcomers and old salts alike from the bottom of the Bay to the stove to the paper-covered table. Then, majestically, we dine.

Our “beautiful swimmers,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Warner called them, are more than a good meal. Whether you steam them yourself or meet at a crab house, they’re a seasonal ritual, a social gathering and an occasion to toast the pleasures of Chesapeake living.

But it’s wise, too, to take stock of what is happening to the crab population and why we should prepare for changes that may be needed to keep those crabs coming.

Crabs and oysters have been harvested in the Chesapeake for 300 years. But not until the 1980s, with oysters far into decline, did crabs become our most valuable Bay resource. That put even more pressure on the crustaceans; indeed there’s been a five-fold increase in harvesting in the last half of the 20th century, most of it in the last 20 years.

Thankfully, we didn’t have our heads in the muck. The diminishing catches prompted creation last year of the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, an effort by Maryland and Virginia to head off a collapse. Astonishingly, it was the first such cooperative effort by two states that seldom see eye-to-eye on conservation matters.

Findings so far haven’t been surprising. Among them was the conclusion that the blue crab spawning stock declined by 70 percent in the 1990s. Crabs are smaller and fewer because they get caught as soon as they grow big enough to be legal. It would be worse if crabs weren’t such biologically resilient critters.

In Virginia, the Marine Resources Commission last week tentatively approved a summertime sanctuary for crabs to protect spawning females. We routinely spank Virginia in this space for a backwards approach to sprawl and environmental protection. Today, we say, “Nice work.”

But it is a first step, and more steps will be needed. Next month, the scientists will gather in a retreat sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Commission to compare notes and to begin coming up with recommendations. By next spring, we’re likely to be in the midst of a debate that will be critical to the blue crab’s future.

We’ll be talking about reducing pressure on crabs, which could mean limiting the number of commercial crab pots and making it harder for new watermen to enter the business. There could be calls for a reduction of 25 percent or more on total fishing pressure, which surely would mean higher prices for consumers.

Cutbacks of any sort are never pleasant to ponder. But the penalty for doing nothing is almost too scary to contemplate. Especially when you’re breaking out a thumb-sized lump of backfin speckled with seasoning, which is about to be washed down with beer so cold it makes your ears wiggle.
Which is, we bet, what you’ll have a biological need to be doing after reading this issue of Bay Weekly.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly