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Crab nursery looks to future
Watermen-run centers envisioned
By Gretchen Parker
Associated Press Writer
PINEY POINT, Md. -- More than 1,600 baby blue crabs, just weeks old and still wearing slick, see-through skins, are quickly dropped one at a time into coolers filled with mesh nets.
Minutes later, they are packed into trucks and are on the way to be released into two breeding nooks in Chesapeake Bay tributaries. A new brood already is growing in this makeshift crab nursery at southern Maryland's tip.
The bustling bunker on St. George Creek, an expansion of a marine lab run by the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore, is the start of what crabbers and researchers hope will be the future of the bay: a network of watermen-operated crab nurseries that can operate with little staff and a minimum of funds.
They envision a loose circle of nurseries, filled with little more than gurgling tanks, that would pump "teenage" crabs into selected tributaries around the bay. The crabs would then, as they migrate, merge with indigenous crabs in a deep channel that runs the length of the bay.
Three months later, those that survive would be sexually mature and ready to breed.
If it works, it could help stall -- or halt -- the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, a partner in the hatchery consortium, has found that spawning-age populations of bay crabs fell 80 percent over the 1990s. Harvests, though stabilized, are well below modern averages.
But the partnership, which includes the institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology, or COMB, isn't there yet. First, it needs solid answers about how well its lab-hatched crabs are surviving and reproducing in the wild, said Yonathan Zohar, director of COMB.
The center has hatched and tagged 100,000 crabs, several generations worth, during the last three years in a lab on the north side of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The project is a wild success, breeding the finicky crabs year-round and guiding them through eight stages of larval development before they grow claws and are big enough for release.
Its project is an unprecedented "tagged release" of crabs, leaders say. Japan hatches thousands of crabs every year but doesn't tag or recapture them for research, Zohar said.
Ecologists at the Smithsonian center and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a consortium partner, do the work of releasing and studying the crabs in the western shore's Rhode River and in the York River of Virginia.
Researchers are finding out that so far, the lab crustaceans are growing to be healthy adults, with a survival rate of 20 percent to 30 percent after they're pitched into the Chesapeake Bay. Their wild peers survive at a rate of just .301 percent.
The federal government is expressing confidence in the project. The consortium, which also includes North Carolina State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, gets $2 million a year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But to get answers that could predict how feasible a network of nurseries would be, they need more crabs, Zohar said.
"Our ecologists are telling us, 'Guys, we need more crabs. We need 200,000 a year,' " Zohar said. That's partly because only a fraction of those released are able to be recaptured for study.
To make room for more newborn crabs, the toddlers needed to move to their own nursery.
COMB found this place. It's an abandoned oyster hatchery owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. What scientists discovered, once they filled the building with tanks and started pumping in St. George Creek water, was a surprise.
The young crabs love the creek water. They have been coddled since birth in sterile lab tanks and an artificial sea-like cocktail, but they are thriving in water pumped in from the creek.
With few controls on the water, the nursery is cheaper than the COMB lab to run. Less staff is needed, because the crabs are beyond the vulnerable larval stages.
Zohar doesn't yet know exactly how much a network of nurseries would cost to run. The budget of each would largely depend on its size.
This makeshift nursery, hidden in the woods of Piney Point, is working even better than planned, said Zohar and other researchers in the partnership. It runs with just a few staffers, but 9,000 crabs already have grown and graduated from here since the summer.
Last year, the hatchery program released 60,000 crabs. Next year, with the help of Piney Point, it will double that, said crab nutritionist Odi Zmora.
Watermen also are investing. Mick Blackistone, a crabber from Anne Arundel County, works with a nonprofit created by the Maryland Watermen's Association that raises $225,000 a year for the project. He envisions nurseries in Oxford, at the former Horsehead Wildlife Sanctuary in Queen Anne's County and in Solomons on the Patuxent River.
He encourages fellow watermen to buy into the project, while at the same time explaining that distributing lab crabs in the bay is not going to ruin their livelihood.
"One thing they're very positive about is the scientific research and knowledge we've gained," Blackistone said. "But if they think bushels of crabs are going to go from $100 to $40, that's not good. We have to explain that's not what we're talking about."
On the other hand, he also has the job of explaining to watermen that COMB is not starting a put-and-take hatchery. The crabs are meant to breed after they're delivered to the bay. Release spots are picked carefully, so the crabs don't have to compete with too many other crabs or run the risk of getting snatched up by watermen, said Romuals Lipcius, a VIMS ecologist.
Researchers have made the project a success so far, but watermen must buy into it for the vision of a nursery network to be realized, Zohar said.
"The eventual goal is to transfer this whole thing to watermen," he said. "If it works, we want them to do it."
Originally published November 22, 2004