|In Crabby Terms,
This is the Season of Our Discontent
The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.
-King Henry V: Shakespeare
And might I add, when the empty vessel is a crab boat, either commercial or recreational, the sound is loud, angry and relentless. These days on the Chesapeake, it fills the air.
Really, it comes as no great surprise, but the beloved blue crab is obviously in trouble, big trouble. The July catch was the lowest on record for the month. No doubt but that the August figure will be even worse.
Crabs are more scarce than Oriole victories, and the Birds are fighting to stay out of the cellar of the Eastern Division of the American League. To be worse than that is cause for alarm.
There's finger pointing in every which direction as consumers pay more than they ever have for crustaceans, and the baskets aboard crab boats are emptier than ever. If you thought the price of crabs was high for the traditional Fourth of July crab feasts - more than a hundred bucks - check out the price to dump a bushel on a table papered over with The Sun on the Labor Day weekend.
Good crabs, large ones, full, male and no whities, cost $200 or more for a full basket - if you could get them, that is. If you wanted soft crabs, the big whales, the going price was more than double that of a year ago, which probably didn't bother you because you couldn't get them.
No Show, No Go
If you were a fisherman who prefers soft or peeler crab baits for rockfish and sea trout, you discovered baiting the hook cost more than the market price of the finfish you would like to have caught. But, like the guy bellying up to the picnic table, you probably weren't able to buy softies or peelers. Not at any price.
Friday evening, I stopped by Outdoor Sportsman, an Essex tackle shop, where anglers were stocking up on bait for the holiday weekend. Most wanted crabs, were told none were available - but a few might come in around six o'clock. Many waited.
At 6:25, from the back room came owner Jack Barnhart with a bushel basket half-filled with scrambling peelers. The fishermen erupted; just about every one of them bid to buy the whole works. To have obliged one angler for all the contents of the basket, regardless of price, would have been suicide.
So there Jack was, doling out peelers - several, no more - to a fisherman, and in the time it takes to reel in a six-inch white perch, all were gone, and no more were to come. If you think it's virtually impossible to buy good hard and soft crabs, try buying live peelers. No crabber wants to sell them. He can make more moola by waiting until they're soft, more than doubling his money.
A peeler barely alive enough to wiggle a leg can bring a couple bucks or more. A good soft crab is worth four bucks or more, so what's a fisherman to do?
Seeing how few anglers were on the Chesapeake for Labor Day weekend, it's obvious what many anglers did. Like commercial and recreational crabbers, they stayed home - though many blamed the rainy weather and possibility of thunder storms. Fewer boats chased after crabs, rockfish, trout, blues, spot, perch, flounder and other species than I've noted since I first arrived here the summer of '56.
Many commercial crabbers have pulled their pots, despite the high price crabs bring them dockside - if they get a bushel or two. It costs more for fuel than what they can make on the crabs they are able to catch. The bottom has fallen out of the Chesapeake's crab basket, both in Virginia and Maryland.
In the Crystal Ball
So what lies ahead? I put the question to Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Pete Jensen who admitted he didn't have an answer, not yet. But he wasn't optimistic and added that the department was trying not to "overreact." The situation is being scrutinized, assessments are underway, some tough decisions will have to be made in both Maryland and Virginia, and Pete concedes the General Assembly could well get into the act.
We've had scares before, the latest just four years ago, but never like this. At other times, there were smaller crabs coming on, some areas holding fair numbers, somewhere a glimmer of hope. But other than a few more crustaceans noticed in some tributaries - among them the Bohemia - this time the dearth seems Baywide.
There are increasing calls for a moratorium, or dramatic cutbacks in the catching, more than ever before, but proposing such action brings the issue to the legislative/administrative arena where sound management plays second fiddle to politics. We've been through that before with crabs, rockfish, shad, oysters, clams, you name it - and the watermen's lobby probably has more clout than any other in the state.
Would a moratorium help? When ducks were in the doldrums a couple decades ago, a moratorium was suggested, but waterfowl managers opted for severe curtailments in preference to complete closure. They said it was virtually impossible to stockpile ducks. Production depended on suitable nesting habitat and spring and summer rains, not numbers of potential nesters.
Is it basically the same with crabs, I asked Pete Jensen. It wouldn't hurt, was his response - and he certainly isn't thinking about it at this time. But would it be the solution?
Crabs are short-lived creatures, two or three seasons, so stockpiling can't guarantee a solution, Pete said. Also, if they're not caught, they still face problems that can be as severe as the pressure of pots, trot lines, hand lines, scrapes and anything else that catches them.
You see, crabs not only whet the appetite of you and me, at various stages of life, they are targeted by many fish in abundance, among them rockfish, sea trout, perch, drum, hardheads, spot, flounder - just about anything that swims. Predation takes a toll, and you can't enforce a crab moratorium on finfish.
Then there's the weather, primarily winter kill, which thankfully wasn't bad last year, but who knows what lies ahead? In bad winters, crab mortality can be devastating to stocks.
We have been managing crabs via computer models based on how many we, commercially and recreationally, can catch in the interest of sound management. With all the economical and political pressure involved in crab management the buffer has been very slim. Now something has gone awry.
Surely part of the problem is overcatching, overcatching based on what is available as the other still undetermined factors take bigger slices of the natural crab-production pie.
In recent years, regulations have been implemented to keep commercial pressure at a given level; also there have been curtailments to a lesser degree to control the recreational catch. But obviously, they are not sufficient.
The sad part is that even now when crabbing is so poor that many watermen have called it quits for the season, and many sports crabbers have done likewise, if crabs reappeared in catchable numbers in the next month (and they've been known to suddenly reappear), everyone would be out after them pronto.
And this is the time when the females are migrating, when they're especially vulnerable - and when crab picking houses want them as bad as do recreational crabbers, who have endured poor catches all season. So what do we do? The practical answer is obvious, but sadly among the majority of those who catch crabs, practical solutions are not practical. Enough said