Keep the Crab Ladies in Action

Commentary by Karen Hosler, Bay Journal News Service

Sometime in mid-September, a sea parade of female crabs, fresh from Maryland encounters with those No. 1 Jimmys, will head down the Chesapeake Bay to a winter sanctuary in Virginia where they will launch the next generation.

Warning to the she-crabs: this year there’s no guarantee of safe passage. Apparently, you are just too good at what you do.

Sharp limits on the taking of female crabs imposed since 2008 combined with favorable winds, tides, and temperatures have produced spectacular results. The bay’s crab population, then at historic lows, has more than doubled in just two years. Sparing the pregnant Moms, who knew?

But those protections will ease a bit this fall because beleaguered watermen have pleaded like crazy for relief they may not need. And because the experts can’t say for sure that a little relief would do much harm.

Eric Johnson, a fisheries ecologist for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said he’d like to see the restrictions fully in place long enough to build up some population “equity” against a season of bad weather. But he’s not kicking up a fuss. Nor are any of his colleagues.

Witness the rare sight of environmentalists on the cusp of what might be a great victory. They’ve learned to be careful for fear they will jinx it.

“This is a wonderful position to be in,” said Stephanie Westby, a fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Crabbers can get a bit of a break, yet the annual harvest is still on track to hit the target of 46 percent of the total crab population, which scientists have agreed is the minimum sustainable level.

“That means they can take almost half, yet still leave enough to replace the population and allow for some growth,” Westby said. “If we have a bad year, we can tweak the regulations in the other direction.”

Since time past memory, folks have been arguing that too many crabs were being fished from the sadly polluted bay. Watermen fired back that bay pollution wasn’t their fault. They blamed fertilizer running off farms, and dirty rainwater rushing into the bay from overdeveloped suburbs. And they were right. Crabbing doesn’t cause dead zones or spoil water quality.

But by 2008, crabbers were taking 60 percent of a total population that had dwindled to 280 million--a third of its 1993 level. The fishery was near collapse. State leaders in Maryland and Virginia got scared enough to take bold action.

Even so, it seems a marvel that those rules were actually imposed. For the first time ever, female crabs were protected through a comprehensive program enforced by both states. In Maryland, where female crabs come to mate, the season was shortened, and catch limits were set. In Virginia, where female crabs hibernate, the ages-old practice of winter dredging was banned.

“Hundreds of people came out to the public hearings,” recalled John Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “They said the children will starve, life as we know it will be gone forever…One man asked me if I would pay his mortgage because he couldn’t.”

Politicians tried to ease the pain with $30 million in federal disaster aid to the two states. Much of the money went to buy out and retire crab licenses. Some of it paid watermen for removing derelict “ghost” crab pots from the bottom of the bay, where these lost and abandoned pots are death traps for all sorts of creatures.

So far, it looks like watermen did pretty well this year, Bull said. “Everybody tells us they are having a banner year,” catching a smaller percentage of a much bigger population, now estimated at 658 million crabs bay-wide.

Concessions granted this year are small. Maryland extended the fall season for catching females by nine days. Virginia allowed watermen a few extra days to keep very pregnant “black sack” sponge crabs that are likely to die if they are thrown back into the water.

But why not leave well enough alone, at least for another year or two to determine how much weather is a factor? Because watermen are still complaining, this is an election year in Maryland, and another dust-up over oysters is underway. The environmental lobby has learned to pick its spots.

“Public policy advocates wrestle with this all the time,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, which has no dog in the crab fight. “There’s the perfect solution for the environment, the perfect solution for economic development, and the perfect solution for a fair society. You can’t look at an issue in isolation from other factors and expect success.”

So, here’s an idea. Let’s keep the crab ladies in action, but also work on the water pollution that makes their job so much more difficult. Get tough water quality standards out of Congress, tough storm water regulations out of local governments, and live by them.

Hey, we might have just have dodged a future without steamed crabs. Need more be said?

Karen Hosler, former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore.

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