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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Blues

Air Date: Week of

Betty Rogers reports from the Chesapeake Bay on the staggering decline of the crab so closely associated with the region and its economy. This winter, Maryland and Virginia started restricting blue crab catches in the hopes of preventing further decline of the population of crustaceans, along with the economic future of watermen dependent on them for their livelihoods.


NUNLEY: If you've ever tasted the succulent meat of the Chesapeake blue crab, you know why it's considered a seafood delicacy. It's delicious, and today it's expensive. More than $20 a pound at some seafood markets. More than half of the total US catch of blue crabs comes from the Chesapeake Bay. The yearly harvest from the bay pumps nearly $200 million into the economies of Maryland and Virginia. But the Bay's blue crab population may be in trouble, and this winter Virginia followed Maryland's lead in restricting crab harvests. Producer Betty Rogers visited the crab fisheries around Norfolk, Virginia, and has this report.

ROGERS: Winter evenings at twilight. A dredge rig is usually pulled up with its motor running at the Herman Green and Sons stop downriver from Gloucester, Virginia. The captain and his mate spend the day raking the floor of the Lower Chesapeake Bay with metal dredges edged with steel claw teeth, digging out female blue crabs buried for the winter in the mud bottom.

(Machinery runs; men yell)

ROGERS: A heister winch lifts out 6 barrels of crabs one by one, a slim catch for the 12-hour day. Well below the 20 barrel limit. The winter dredge season is unique to Virginia. Further north, Maryland's crabbing is over by late fall, and pressure is mounting to restrict this harvest of hibernating females: the spawning stop for the whole Chesapeake Bay. Robert Jenkins started working on the water 25 years ago.

JENKINS: When I started with daddy we caught all we wanted. Nowadays it takes you all day to catch them. I've seen it where we worked 35 minutes and caught 35 barrels in 35 minutes, fast as we could get them up, that's how quick it was. But nowadays, I mean, 20 barrels is all day limit the situation.

ROGERS: In Virginia, 1995 was one of the worst blue crab harvests in decades. And a Maryland study last fall showed a drop of one third in the blue crab stock since 1990. Blue crab populations widely fluctuate and no one's certain whether the decline is natural or human made. Other factors such as shoreline development and chemical runoff also affect crab survival.

(Hammering sounds; ambient voices)

ROGERS: At the Graham and Rollins picking house in Hampton, Virginia, Vice President Johnny Graham says low crab stocks and skyrocketing prices are destabilizing the industry.

GRAHAM: I don't know of many items that you can go buy in a grocery store and pay up to $20, $25 a pound for. And that's why we're not knowing what our future holds. Twenty years ago there was as many as 15 picking houses in this Hampton area, and today we are the only one left. And that's not a very good sign.

ROGERS: Mary Crocker and her fellow pickers at Graham and Rollins see another cause for alarm. A change in the size of the crabs.

CROCKER: I'm one of the old pickers, and the crabs are not like they used to be. We had nice big jumbo crabs. We don't get no jumbo now.

WOMAN: They are very small. You don't get a lot of meat out of them.

CROCKER: We need some nice big sized crabs, not beeny beeny beeny. But I hope we don't all go out of work, though. I need this job.


CROCKER: I need it all so hard.

ROGERS: Maryland first raised the alarm last summer when data showed the female harvest had jumped 47%. The state didn't want another crash like the shutdown of the rock fish harvest in the late 80s. Pete Jensen, Maryland's Director of Tidal Fisheries, sees this as the latest in a series of accumulating problems in the bay.

JENSEN: Striped bass declined to the point where we said stop fishing for striped bass, and a lot of them shifted over to crabs. We have a decline in oysters because of the parasites. People that were moved out of the oyster fishery went into crabs. And so, all of a sudden we found ourselves with the last major resource, the last major crop out there for the commercial water men, was blue crabs. Which says to us, we ought to be even more particular and more conservative.

ROGERS: In September Maryland banned commercial harvest one day a week, limited the hours, shortened the season, and cut back recreational crabbing through the end of 1995. And the state is now debating restrictions for the '96 opening in April. Pressure mounted for Virginia to act. Earlier this winter the Virginia Marine Commission held a decisive public hearing that drew the largest attendance in its history. Jack Travelstead, Virginia's Chief of Fisheries, testified the industry is troubled but not in crisis.

TRAVELSTEAD: This is not an emergency. We have some time. Things are not going to collapse overnight. There are still crabs out there.

ROGERS: A new Federal study contradicted reports of a sharp decline, and researchers told the commission the adult stock was healthy and the juvenile crabs were on the increase. But Ron Lipsis of the Virginia Institute for Marine Science said the Federal report was at odds with his data.

LIPSIS: We haven't seen the same increase in the number of juveniles and the stock. And that concerns us because we would expect to see that. Otherwise, we would presume that either they're suffering much higher mortality or that the fishery is harvesting those and therefore utilizing the juveniles.

ROGERS: Numerous water men left their boats tied at the dock on a good fishing day to testify before the unfamiliar microphones and cameras. Water men in both states strongly oppose stricter regulations, and many still protest the rule made 2 years ago in Virginia that put rings in their pots to let the smaller crabs escape. Many water men believe the rings intended to release immature crabs are just encouraging a smaller crab stock to breed.

RIGGINS: My name's James Riggins; I started with my daddy when I was 9. Back in those days, if you asked anybody how many jimmies would fill a bushel they'd tell you 40. Now I'm 52; it takes well over 100 to fill a bushel. I've seen the decline in the size of crabs. Making laws when you don't know all the answers is like shooting at a bull with a shotgun when he's running at you. If you don't take a pee, it ain't likely he'll change his mind, and you gonna get run over. Just loading the gun up and shooting won't do a bit of good and that's what you've been doing all these years; you're just loading the gun up and shooting and hoping it'll do a little bit of good.

ROGERS: Finally the Commission voted regulations that both water men and environmentalists agree will have almost no impact on day to day fishing operations. They held the number of commercial crab licenses at recent levels, and limited the number of pots that crabbers can use, but set that figure so high it affects less than 1% of the 2,000 licensed Virginia water men. Jack Travelstead, Virginia's Chief of Fisheries, says the regulations accomplished the Commission's objectives.

TRAVELSTEAD: They were designed to stabilize the fishery by capping things where they were in '95, not allow people to significantly increase the size of their rigs, not allow large numbers of new people into the fishery. Hold things where they were. Most people will not feel an effect from these regulations.

ROGERS: The Commission also set the first ever size limit on softshell crabs and banned the harvest of females with dark egg sacs on their underbellies: a color cue that the she crab is just about to spawn. Parks Roundtree of the Coastal Conservation Association says the measure's effectiveness is neutralized by an exemption of 10 dark sponge crabs per bushel.

ROUNDTREE: Which as I understand it is about as many dark sponge crabs as you would ever find in a bushel of crabs. And we have a Commission which is a politically appointed body confronted with a room full of water men who want to be left alone to go harvest all that they can catch. And the political process ends up stacking the deck in favor of the water men, but in the long term probably undermining the resource and cheating the public and the water men from the potential that could be there.

ROGERS: Other questions remain as well. The new regulations have no new funds for law enforcement, and both states lack data on how the rapidly expanding softshell industry impacts the total stock. Also, Virginia failed to follow Maryland's lead in reducing recreational crabbing. Pete Jensen, Director of Maryland's Tidal Fisheries, says that could be a serious omission.

JENSEN: People have more leisure time, more money, more boats. We really don't know what the recreational harvest is. We've done a number of surveys over the years and the estimate of the total harvest has ranged anywhere from 11 million pounds a year to 40 million, and the average commercial harvest is 40 million pounds a year. It's a serious data blackhole for us, where we don't really know what's happening, and we believe it's something we really ought to have a better handle on.

(Boat motors)

ROGERS: Ultimately, successful management of the blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay goes beyond just regulating fishing pressure.

LIPSIS: We're approaching the mouth of the York River in Lobjack Bay, and this is one of the primary nursery grounds for juvenile blue crabs. Obviously one of the things that should be focused on is not only regulation of the fishery but protection of habitat.

ROGERS: Ron Lipsis of the Virginia Institute for Marine Scientists says the region's exceptional crab abundance is due to its unique combination of sea grasses and shallow waters. Female blue crabs hatch their young in the lower regions and these shrimp like larvae then travel outside the bay, to the continental shelf, for about a month. Propelled by wind and water currents, the creatures reinvade the bay and settle in sea grass nursery grounds. Blue crabs utilize all habitats in the bay from the deepest channels to shallow shore lines, from the most saline to fresh water.

LIPSIS: After mating, then the fertilized females have to make it back down to the lower bay, basically moving through a gauntlet of pots and other harvesting gears in order to make it to the lower bay spawning sanctuary and the spawning grounds. So you can't simply focus on an egg bearing female; you can't just focus on the lower bay spawning grounds. You have to focus throughout the bay. So that's what's essential for the long-term sustainability of the resource.

ROGERS: Sustainability is the crucial issue as the spring harvest approaches and the first real test of the regulations begins. Legislatures in both Virginia and Maryland are weighing even tougher preservation efforts. The blue crab has a short life span of 3 to 4 years and could recover quickly if conditions are favorable, but the shortages and these unprecedented restrictions are making the people who earn their living from the blue crab concerned about their futures. Sammy Coates is out clamming on the York River on a morning when high winds have grounded all crab dredge boats. His 16 year old son is the latest in a long line of water men.

COATES When I first got this boat about 6, 7 years ago, I said well, my son get big enough, we'll put a double rig on, you know. Rig on that side for him. But I'm not putting him on the water. I told him he can have the boat and go fishing when he wants to, but he's not coming on the water to work it, you know, because it's not here for him.

ROGERS: For Living on Earth, this is Betty Rogers near Norfolk, Virginia.



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