Daily Press, Newport News, VA
We must kick it up a notch to restore the bay's crab population
By Fred Carroll
September 6, 2006
Rom Lipcius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science is an expert on blue crabs, but he knows something about humans, too, and not just about their biology. He accurately sums up a weakness of human psychology when he warns that there's a danger that we'll get used to the blue crab population being at historically low levels, that we'll start to accept the unhealthy as normal.
That may be among the biggest dangers this icon of the Chesapeake Bay faces: a lack of public determination to do what it will take to restore the blue crab population to what it once was - abundant.
Since 2000, Virginia has taken a number of necessary and commendable steps to protect this bay inhabitant. There's an economic incentive breathing down its neck: The commercial blue crab harvest is important, running more than $20 million a year, or about as much as the commercial catch for all finfish put together. Among the tools used are an array of regulations on where crabs may be taken, at what time of day and day of the week and month of the year, with what gear. There are limits on the size of crabs that may be taken, and how many. A great swath of the bay, more than 940 square miles, and much of Hampton Roads are off limits. A relatively new rule bans the taking of the most critical members of the population: adult females ripe with eggs.
There is some encouraging news: In 2005, the population seemed to be stable. In terms of the proportion of the population removed, the harvest didn't reach the level experts think is dangerous.
But early 2006 results don't look so good. And even if the population has stabilized, it's still too low, only about a third of what it was in 1993.
Baby steps won't rescue a creature that has reached this condition. Particularly if, as Lipcius worries, we come to accept the status quo.
The greatest danger is that the bottom could - not will, but could - fall out of the blue crab population, and we won't see it coming and have a regulatory response ready. Or that it won't be possible to bring it back to health, because the population has shrunk so much it has lost its resiliency, the abundance that would allow it to weather some bad years and bad events.
Also confronting it are threats that have nothing to do with the amount of crabs taken out of the water, but with the health of that water. Chief among those threats: pollution from sewage treatment plants and runoff from farms and parking lots and lawns. This creates dead zones, which rob the water of oxygen and starve underwater grasses that blue crabs depend on to shelter baby crabs. The loss of more than half the bay's underwater grasses and the growing dead zones may be more of a threat to crabs than all the pots and dredges watermen put out.
The blue crab population has a couple of things going for it. One, Lipcius notes, is that four key players - watermen, the processing industry, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science - are working together.
In the months ahead, the VMRC will consider what to do next. The challenge before it is summed up in the dry language that came out of its own Blue Crab Advisory Committee this summer: "Crabs are at a low level of abundance, signs of a strong recovery are lacking and there is concern. The spawning stock is at a low level of abundance."
One thing that will help is a bay-wide management approach, since crabs don't know where the state line is, and what Virginia does affects Maryland's harvest, too. Another is more of the research that helps decision-makers know which strategies work. For example, the huge sanctuary has helped protect the critical female population, but another tactic - banning the taking of egg-laden females - hasn't. That indicates we need strategies that help more females reach the sanctuary, which could involve extending it or tightening limits on fishing effort.
And fisheries managers can't fix the underwater grasses and dead zones. That will take concerted effort - and money - to reduce runoff, upgrade sewage treatment plants and change the way we live along the bay.