Volume 16, Issue 22 - May 29-June 4, 2008

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Taking the Crab by the Pinchers

The problem, plain and simple: We’re catching too many crabs.

The biggest problem isn’t what man is taking out of the Bay.
It’s what man is putting in the Bay.

–Jack Brooks, Dorchester County crab processor, as quoted in The Sun: May 23, 2008

Jack, though we’re on opposite sides on the current blue crab dilemma, I couldn’t agree with you more. You hit the mark.

Let’s see now. Other than pollutants, what are we putting into the Bay to the detriment of crustaceans? How about commercial crab pots? Long lines, shorter recreational trot lines, recreational crab pots, dredges, dip nets, collapsible traps, hand lines, scrapers and about anything else to snare a crab for human consumption or bait for a fish.

That’s where our opinions cease to agree.

Plain and simple, we’re catching too many crabs.

If we don’t stop catching, the day could come when we won’t be catching any. Little on the Bay could be more obvious. But there are many on the Bay afflicted with blindness. Or selfishness. Or unwarranted optimism.

Time for a Reality Check

The best way for fisheries and wildlife managers to assess the viable population of a given species is to track the numbers taken in a given year.

Last year’s harvest of blue crabs crashed to 27 percent less than 2006, which wasn’t a good year by any means. In ’07, the Maryland commercial catch was 21.8 million pounds, six million below the previous year. Deficits have become common; an average year is the exception. When was the last year the catch was good enough to be described as good?

If catches were put on a graph, the line would be dropping more prominently than the U.S. dollar to the Euro. There would be a few blips to indicate a short-lived rise, but the trend is down to a frightening degree. No crabbers, commercial or recreational, can dispute that. Whatever the argument for last year’s bottom-of-the-barrel catch — dry weather, costs of working their rigs in view of escalating fuel prices and such — we all know why we didn’t catch more.

Simple: There weren’t that many crabs to catch.

Virginia Bites the Bullet

Even in Virginia, administrators best known for their procrastination on fisheries rehabilitation efforts have seen the light. They’re making what I’d call a luke-warm effort to cut back on the take of female crabs.

Yet who’d have dared think a couple years back that today Virginia’s fisheries managers would vote to cut the crab harvest by 34 percent? That the highly controversial winter dredging of hibernating crabs would be abolished? That the season for female crabs would be shortened a month — at a time when the catching is good?

Hey, that’s not all. South of us, they’re cutting the recreational crab pot effort from the traditional five (with a license) to two. They’re making a deep cut in the number of commercial crab pots that can be worked by a licensee. They’re also going to summon any waterman convicted of two crabbing violations in a year for a hearing on whether license revocation is in order.

But is this enough?

When the managers in Virginia stop playing footsie with the commercial fishery, what better evidence is there that Chicken Little’s sky is really falling?

Getting to Stop

The Sun’s Dan Rodericks and The Examiner’s Mike Olesker have been arguing for a close. I ponder whether now it’s my turn. It’s not easy to talk of shutting down anything that provides a livelihood for others. It’s even harder for the legislators, administrators and politicians wary of the consequences.

But I’m one for taking the bull by the horns — though not as quickly as Rodericks and Olesker. If today the governors of both states (and these days they’re the ones calling the shots on controversial and economic issues) decided on a moratorium, the whole effort would go to court — and still be under consideration by judges when the seasons close.

Emergency action can come fast, but appeal rulings can slow things down slower than a snail’s pace. Lawyers would get rich as crab woes continued.

Isn’t there some way the two departments and governors can work in concert? Can’t they call those of the crab industry before them, address the plight of crabs, then tell them they can continue crabbing this year under the meaningful curtailments about to be implemented. Then if winter checks by the scientific community show a continued slide, implement a moratorium before next year’s seasons. It would also give watermen time to avoid fitting out, only to learn their investment was wasted.

We can’t continue this decline, no way. Sooner or later, we’re going to run out of crabs. There won’t be enough to initiate a rebounding population.

Pollution, Predation and Pots

Watermen talk of pollution and lack of vital shallow-water vegetation, even striper predation. They’re probably right.

But pollution, marine vegetation and predation are issues that cannot be solved quickly. This is no occasion for a waiting game.

Restoring a Bay hospitable to crabs will take decades; we haven’t made much if any progress the past 50 years despite all the talk and promises. Ecology can be impatient when it comes to actual environmental considerations; oysters have taught us that. But did we get the message? If you know the answer it’s not a question.

Pollution combined with nature has impacted Bay grasses and other vegetation. Restore them, and the much-talked-about predation by rockfish and other species will be cured. Crabs will enjoy a much safer habitat: They’ll have a place to elude predators. But before that, pollution must be abated.

Meanwhile the nets, dredges, scrapers, pots, hand and trot lines will continue to remove more crabs from an already depleted fishery. It doesn’t make sense.

Few things I like better than a good Maryland crab dish. I enjoy crabbing almost as much as fishing. But like so many others, I can get by short-term via switching to imported crabs whether from Texas or Timbuktu if it enhances chances for a viable spawning stock — once we clean up the mess on the Bay. Enough said.

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