Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 10
March 8-14, 2001
Current Issue
Still Dancing...
Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Burton on the Bay
Chesapeake Outdoors
Not Just for Kids
Good Bay Times
What's Playing Where
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us
Blue Crab Blues
Will new regs save the species?Blue Crab Blues

Let's open that book
to the life of a sook.
We'll find a she-crab,
whose life can be drab.

-"Crusty Station": 2001

I assume the proprietors of this establishment, known as Bay Weekly, prefer their publication be considered unequivocally fit for family reading. I hate to tilt the apple cart, but ...

But there are times - and this could be one of them - that perhaps it's appropriate to go the route of the tawdry weeklies such as the National Inquirer, Globe, Star and People Magazine. For a comprehensive review of the Chesapeake's blue crab picture, we've got to go into the 'S' word. S as in Sex.

No way around it, seeing that Bay crustacean woes are on the lips of most Marylanders these days. And just about everyone - other than the scientists who study crabs and the bureaucrats who dictate the regulations - insist the solution is simple.

"Just stop catching the females," is the cry of those who catch and eat crabs. "The more female crabs we save, the more crabs we'll have to turn out. Simple as that, as any fool can plainly see."

Wow, here we are spending millions of bucks surveying, studying and administering crab rules, regulations and laws when along come a bunch of chicken-neckers who wouldn't know a zoeae from a megalops (look 'em up) to tell us, without charging a cent, how we can have so many crustaceans that there will be dozens in every pot. Is this a great country, or what?

Only trouble is that advice is like so many other things in life: You get what you pay for. Free advice in crab management might be worth no more than we pay for it. Which brings us to the sexy side of the life of the diminishing population of beautiful swimmers.

The Sexy Side of Life

The professionals who study crustaceans are taking a second look at, shall we say, the reproductive process of the jimmys and the sooks as well as the role reproduction plays in crab management and populations. For ages, the catching and keeping of female crabs has been a bone of contention, especially in years when crabbing isn't as good as desired.

All along, the practice has been defended primarily on the basis that female crabs generally spawn only once in a lifetime, which they do by the time they become of legal size. Thus, to throw them back is a waste of a natural resource from what H. L. Mencken called the "great protein factory," Chesapeake Bay.

This still appears the general routine, though we're discovering all sooks don't stick with the celibacy route after that first hatch. That is, if they escape nets, dredges, scrapes, handlines, trot lines and predators, including other crabs, before the moon is right for another, shall we say, amorous doubling act.

The Bay's scientific community now tells us there's the possibility, even probability, that some crab population problems might not be associated with catching sooks but with not enough mature and virile jimmys around to do what comes naturally. Both the numbers and the average size of male crabs are diminishing.

So what's a poor sook intent on putting dozens of crabs in every steamer pot to do? It's not like in the world of deer, wild turkeys, pheasants and so many other landlocked critters where one macho buck, tom or cockbird can handle all the responsibilities within his harem. No sir, not among blue crabs of the Chesapeake.

Meanwhile, the females are subjected to increased fishing pressure. In Maryland, from 1982 through the early '90s, sooks represented 20 to 30 percent of commercial catches. Now it's just over 40 percent. In Virginia, where they still don't appear to be taking the current problem as seriously as we do, the female catch among watermen is well above 50 percent.

Jimmy crabs get an obscure break in commercial proposals. Watermen would not be able to use crabs of less than legal size for bait; nor could claws be removed from them in crab pots set for peelers. This is a practice used to attract romantically inclined sooks into the pots.

Who's Catching Who

You'll note these facts and figures are based solely on the commercial catch, which brings up another curious aspect of crab management in Maryland, Virginia and that third blue crab jurisdiction, the Potomac River managed by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

There is no effective licensing program for recreational crabbers in the three jurisdictions. Without adequate licensing and reporting, crab managers have no real handle on what recreational crabbers take. Commercial crabbers, on the other hand, are obligated to report their haul.

To hear watermen talk, those of the chicken-neck; collapsible- and ring-trap nets and short trotline clan catch as many crabs as the watermen do. Worse still, they sell some of them, maybe more than some of them.

To hear the recreational crabbers talk, they catch maybe half at most of what the watermen do. Only two things are certain:

1. Fisheries' managers have no way to figure accurately what recreational crabbers take, which makes management decisions complicated and tough. Some pretty significant numbers are missing.

2. Recreational crabbers catch and keep an appreciably lesser number of female crabs. They consider sooks the key to future crab populations. Many say they release all female crabs.

Payback Time

But paybacks are tough, and now recreational crabbers face payback time. We're pretty much committed to a 15 percent reduction in crab catches this year in a program that could see even bigger cuts in the future. Which brings up the recent Maryland Department of Natural Resources hearing I attended at Anne Arundel County Community College. Almost until the end, I wondered why watermen weren't griping as much as they usually do when it's payback time for them.

Then it dawned on me. The recreational crabber appears to be taking a bigger hit than the commercial counterpart, which, incidentally, DNR denies. You be the judge.

Among the myriad of proposals within the General Assembly and DNR, here's how things shape up.

  • Watermen must choose to take either Saturday or Sunday off, and cut off at least a half hour from each day's crabbing.

  • Recreational crabbers would not be able to crab on Wednesdays. Hours would be 5:30am to sundown in the Bay proper, which is a later start than for watermen who, recreational crabbers complain, get first cracks at the better trotline spots. Worst of all, there would be a limit of one bushel a day to the boat. Currently, recreational crabbers, depending on the number aboard can take up to three bushels per boat.

  • Also, recreational crabbers would have to reduce their number of ring and collapsible traps from 30 to 20.

  • In addition, there's the licensing proposal to cover all recreational crabbing for anyone 16 years old and older. The tab would be $5, or if the crabber has a tidal fishing license, an additional $2 fee. Licensing receipts would be available to monitor the recreational catch and determine its impact on crab populations.

Meaningful licensing should have come a long time ago, but our legislators played to the gallery, and so now we must pretty much accept what's proposed - seeing as there are no reliable statistics to prove an inequity in the proposals. As I said, paybacks can be hell.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly