This article appeared tonite in the local newspaper here in York,PA
The crustaceous creators
Marine lab aims to boost blue crab breeders in Chesapeake Bay
By GRETCHEN PARKER The Associated Press
BALTIMORE -- In a giant, dark tank at a marine laboratory at the Inner Harbor, a regal-looking blue crab rests, exhausted, in the corner. A million of her babies, hours old, swim around her in a powdery mist.
She has mated and hatched her eggs even though she's never left the tanks at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. She herself was hatched at the lab.
Researchers at the institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology (COMB) are raising their second generation of blue crabs. They're monitoring 25,000 lab-bred crabs they released last year in the Chesapeake Bay, each tagged with a tiny piece of wire, with the hope of halting the collapse of the bay's blue crab population.
So far, the little crabs, although born and coddled in captivity, are a success. They're breeding madly in small nooks along the coast of the upper Chesapeake Bay, said Anson Hines, a leader in the project and a marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater.
The Smithsonian, along with the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, is part of a consortium founded two years ago with $100,000 from Maryland state legislators and $300,000 from Phillips Foods Inc. The Maryland Watermen's Association also is contributing.
Crab populations in isolated areas near the release sites have doubled, Hines said. But the work is still experimental.
"They've increased the populations at these experimental releases, but it's not so clear what will happen on a larger scale," Hines said.
COMB's program aims to bolster the breeding stocks of bay crabs, which have dropped 85 percent since 1990.
To that end, researchers are releasing juvenile crabs, two months old and an inch long, and are monitoring their survival and breeding, said Yonathan Zohar, director of COMB.
Eventually, if the releases continue to be successful, researchers envision hatcheries opening along the Eastern Shore, pumping out blue crabs until breeding stocks recuperate. Commercial harvests of blue crabs in Maryland have dwindled from 55 million pounds in 1993 to a low of 20 million pounds in 2000. In 2002, the catch was nearly 24 million pounds, still well below average.
COMB's success inside the lab is as remarkable as its success in the bay, experts say. It's the first program to hatch a second generation of crabs from mothers raised from larvae.
Crabs of all sizes live an easy life at the hatchery. Young crabs, once past the larval stages, are moved to tanks filled with delicious brine shrimp. The plentiful shrimp are supplied in part to keep the crabs, voracious cannibals, from eating one another.
In another tank, a female crab rests and waits to hatch the million eggs she's been carrying in a dark sack under her belly. It's her second brood -- a surprise to scientists, who long believed female crabs spawned just once in a lifetime.
Zohar says geneticists are working with his program and the project includes studies to investigate the effects of spraying the bay with offspring of a few parents.
He knows the project's long-term success is not guaranteed. "We just wanted to see," he said, "if this was feasible."