Blue Crabs: Worth our $2 Million Investment
Delegate Dick DAmato
The current debate over the origins and severity of the declining blue crab harvest highlights many uncertainties. In particular, does the current severe harvest decline represent a true crisis in this precious crustacean resource? Or is it just the latest historical, cyclical downturn, which will restore itself on its own in the near future?
Despite our long association with the blue crab, we still know far too little about the causes and cures of its decline. Given the importance of the blue crab to a venerable and proud Maryland industry and cultural heritage, doing nothing does not seem wise.
In response to the recommendations of the respected Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Commission and in the face of a divided legislature, the governor has tightened harvest regulations. This has provoked vigorous opposition from a vocal minority of our watermen, some who maintain the crisis is overblown.
Lack of consensus on the causes of the crab scarcity was further illustrated in a recent poll. Marylanders were split nearly on support of a proposed $2 million federal research program being urged by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
The federal money would contribute to the exciting program now underway at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Research Center in Shady Side. This initiative was stimulated by programs successful in Japan for some three decades.
The science undertaken by the Maryland/Smithsonian team is new to the United States. Its purpose is to learn more about the crabs reproductive and life cycles by spawning and hatching crabs in order to document their basic biology. Next, stocks of small crabs would be released into a variety of Chesapeake Bay habitats under controlled and monitored conditions.
These efforts will, first, allow scientists to evaluate the blue crabs migration patterns and life span, and second, support the development of enhanced hatchery designs along the Bay. It is an important step in our understanding of the front end of the harvest process: the basic biology, reproduction, growth and survival of the species.
The project is, in our view, an appropriate and natural response to an emergency condition affecting a vital Maryland industry.
What better use could be made of taxpayer-supported research funds than to put to work our own world-class research institution, highly qualified in this field, to better understand the dynamics of this species in order to develop a range of new remedies to help stabilize this threatened resource?
It would be irresponsible to claim this research will alone find a silver bullet to magically restore permanent healthy crab harvests. But if scientists do not study the blue crab more intensely and work with the watermen and industry to design hatcheries, incorporating other studies done on shrimp, lobster and related crab species, we would be guilty of neglecting all potential avenues for remedies. That is neither good science nor good economic policy.
In Japan, a related species threatened in the Seto Inland Sea prompted the government to initiate a major hatchery and habitat restoration program, which resulted in a six-fold increase in crabs over 26 years, from 1971 to 1997. The increase was highly correlative with the number of juvenile crabs released into the sea.
To put this program into perspective, Japan now produces about 52 million juvenile crabs annually, more than the total adult blue crabs caught in Maryland in 2000. The Japanese government has been releasing juvenile crabs from over 300 sites to sustain a fishery that is about a quarter the size of Chesapeake Bay.
After just 12 months of work, the University of Maryland team has obtained international recognition for innovative research in this field. We believe it has earned further state investments, and we are delighted that Senator Mikulski has joined this effort with fresh federal attention. The federal effort is envisioned as a joint program with the University of Mississippi. If funded, it will inaugurate the first American national crustacean restoration research program.
This is why the governor and the state legislature have urged this science be undertaken as a high priority matter: So that Marylanders and others may continue to enjoy the incredible blue crab for generations to come.