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Author Topic: 2003 bad report-Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee  (Read 1992 times)
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« on: January 02, 2004, 07:36:25 PM »

Report on blue crab recovery deems stocks at ‘critically low levels’


By Karl Blankenship

The Bay’s blue crab stock “remains at critically low levels” and “warrants continued concern and close scrutiny,” cautions a new report summarizing the condition of the Chesapeake’s most valuable commercial fishery.
 The report, from the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s Blue Crab Technical Work Group, offers a sobering look at the species, warning that although the population decline has apparently been halted, fishing pressure remains high and the size of the stock still has not reached the target level set three years ago.
Earlier this year, a separate group, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, issued a report based on the most recent monitoring data which concluded that the blue crab stock “has stabilized near historically low levels.”
The new report doesn’t disagree, but cautions that there are plenty of reasons for continued concern. Some members of the technical workgroup, the report said, cautioned that the term “stabilized” might “connote an unwarranted optimism, and that it may be more accurate to say that the rapid decline observed for more than a decade has apparently slowed.”
Making precise judgments about the health of the stock, the report said, is complicated by a host of issues that remain unresolved or poorly understood, such as whether increased fishing pressure on peeler crabs—those just about to molt—may disproportionately affect the population. Even estimates of the amount of the population being harvested are far from certain, the report noted.
“Whether we have turned the corner, or whether we are at a corner, we’re uncertain,” workgroup member Tom Miller, a fisheries scientist with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, told the Chesapeake Bay Commission at its November meeting. “Things appear to have stopped getting markedly worse. We have no signs yet that things are getting markedly better.”
Rom Lipcius, a fisheries scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, noted that the blue crab population has remained at a low level for 12 years. Never before, he said, had the population been at such a low level for so long without bouncing back. “We have to maintain our management,” he advised.
The technical workgroup is the last remnant of the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, formed in the mid-1990s by the Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, to help improve Baywide management of the troubled stock.
bbcac was disbanded this summer because it lost funding from Virginia and Maryland, but the commission decided to maintain the workgroup, which includes scientists and fishery officials from both states, to provide comprehensive annual reports about the species and its management.
Overall, the new report said, while some areas of the Bay have fared better than others, 2002 had a “well-below average” harvest and preliminary figures for 2003 suggest it will be poor as well.
The decline in catches has not led to a proportionate decline in crab profits, though. The dockside value of the crab harvest has fallen only slightly in Maryland, and not at all in Virginia. That’s because crab prices have gone up, and a growing part of the harvest has focused on soft and peeler crabs, which are more highly valued.
But the lower harvest has taken a toll on crab processing plants, the report said. In Maryland alone, the number of processors has declined from about 49 in 1997 to 30 in 2002. The processing industry is also facing increased pressure from crab meat that is imported to meet local demand. Crab meat imports at the port of Baltimore were almost nonexistent a decade ago, but more than $120 million in crab meat arrived in 2002, according to the report.
The primary reason for the low harvests, the report emphasized, is the continued low crab population.
In 2000, the BBCAC—on the advice of scientists—adopted a population threshold that set an absolute minimum level of protecting 10 percent of the spawning stock each year. It also set a population target, which called for protecting 20 percent of the spawning stock, a level that scientists said would allow a margin of safety for fishery management and allow the population to double over time.
To reach the target, the states over the past three years have adopted new regulations aimed at reducing harvest pressure by 15 percent.
So far, surveys show the stock has not crossed the dangerous threshold line, but neither has it clearly moved toward the target. Rather, harvest has remained in an in-between “precautionary zone,” which indicates the fishery could be in trouble. The report said patience is warranted as the effect of recent management efforts “will not likely show up immediately.”
While the population may have stabilized, the report found that many hurdles remain to ensure effective Baywide management.
For instance, the workgroup said managers and scientists need to review the way they estimate fishing mortality rates—the percentage of the population being caught. It’s a key issue because, if estimates of fishing mortality are off, the stock could be overfished. The workgroup called the development of refined fishing mortality estimates a “central challenge” facing scientists, although it was “an essential ingredient for effective management of the Bay’s crab stock.”
The report also emphasized the need to validate that efforts to reduce fishing pressure are effective. For example, it said that actually documenting fishing effort “remains highly imprecise” and is based on the best estimates of managers. “While jurisdictions have records of licenses, exactly how many pots, scrapes, trotlines and other gear are actually deployed at any given time is essentially unknown,” the report said. It said better methods must be developed to measure fishing pressure.
Further, the report said ways must be found to deal with “latent effort”—watermen who have licenses but are not actually participating in the fishery. That allows a sizable number of people to begin fishing blue crabs if good conditions appear to return. The number is large enough, the report said, that recent actions to reduce fishing pressure “could be completely overwhelmed if a large percentage of license holders decided to re-enter the fishery.”
The report also said that more attention must be focused on whether changing fishing pressures in different parts of the Bay, and on different parts of the crab fishery—such as soft and peeler crabs—may disproportionately affect the overall population.
Other issues that warrant attention, the workgroup said, are a review of the effectiveness of the blue crab sanctuaries that have been created in Virginia, and whether hatchery-reared crabs may be an effective means of boosting the population.
Copies of the report, “Blue Crab 2003,” are available in electronic format from the Chesapeake Bay Commission. E-mail requests to [email protected]

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