ANNAPOLIS – Federal and state fishery scientists charged with assessing the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population soon will release a definitive report eagerly anticipated by watermen, legislators and conservationists.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study is the first to combine both Maryland and Virginia crab data into a theoretical model, and is expected to suggest ways to stem the decline of the blue crab fishery.
To Marylanders, the crab symbolizes enduring natural bounty. Many proudly display the animal on T-shirts, bumper stickers and restaurant signs. Others, such as watermen, have more practical but no less passionate interest in the crustacean’s status.
Recent headlines have been largely bleak, suggesting that crabs — the bay’s last remaining wild food resource, worth $186 million annually — are on the wane.
But on the bright side, scientists say crabs can be prolific breeders, with females carrying from 800,000 to 8 million eggs apiece. Pollution is not a problem for them, and as “scavenger feeders,” they are not picky eaters.
Besides providing a current population estimate, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee report will:
* evaluate the effect of current harvest levels on the fishery,
* define optimum harvest levels,
* provide preliminary information as to whether spawning females are endangered, and
* attempt a first look at the effects of the peeler fishery, in which female soft crabs are harvested prior to mating.
The report will be subjected to peer review — independent evaluation by other experts in the field — the week of Jan. 8.
M. Elizabeth Gillelan, director of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay office, said the central task is to establish a biological reference point for safe harvests.
“If you fish beyond that [level]…the population suffers,” she said.
Compared to mid-century levels, today’s average yearly commercial crab harvest has increased by more than two-thirds, according to a Capital News Service computer analysis of National Marine Fisheries data.
In the 1940s, the annual commercial harvest from the bay averaged 48.2 million pounds. Today it is 81.2 million pounds.
And traditional methods used to calculate harvests may underestimate what is being taken. A 1994 study of the Virginia crab fishery found that official figures represented only slightly more than a third of the actual crabs taken, because of misreporting.
Dr. Eugene Cronin, former director of the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, has studied crabs fishery cycles since 1940 and called for better measurements for decades. He sees the NOAA study as long overdue.
“It’s difficult to detect changes and establish causes” for the recent fluctuations, Cronin observed. Similar shortages have occurred in the past, but “the difference is that now we have much greater fishing pressure,” he said.
Both fisheries managers and watermen note that it’s getting harder to catch crabs.
In 1994, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources study found that the annual catch per crab pot was 21 pounds, compared to 40 pounds a decade earlier. In other words, it takes twice the number of pots today to catch the same amount of crab as it did in 1984. As a result, today’s crabbers on average use more pots – – 58 percent more — than 10 years ago.
At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, crustacean specialist Rom Lipcius said that the crab fishery is not in danger of collapse. But the population has been and remains in what he termed a state of “low abundance.”
The NOAA study will add to accumulating technical evidence that suggests protections are needed, he said.
Surveys of abundance show the female population, in particular, has dropped.
The NOAA Winter Dredge survey, which samples nearly 1,000 sites in both states, shows a 42 percent decline in mature female crabs since 1991. Similarly, a survey of three major bay tributaries in Virginia, conducted over two successive and lengthy spans of time, shows a 61 percent decline in adult females. The measurements were averaged for 1955 through 1975, then for 1976 through 1992.
Gillelan said NOAA’s findings would not address the harvest of egg-bearing females, called “sponge” crabs. Nor will they address the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s sanctuary proposal, which would protect mature female crabs by banning crabbing in waters deeper than 40 feet.
Lipcius would particularly like to see emphasis on protecting spawning stock — females larger than three and one- half inches, which are likely to survive and reproduce.
But he said that reasonable protections for the crab fishery would include “capping fishing levels across the board,” without distinctions between soft or hard crab or dredge crabbing industries.
Equally important is habitat protection, he said. Fragile seagrass beds, vulnerable to hurricanes and fishing pressure, serve as protective nurseries for juvenile crabs. Lipcius would ban fishing completely in these areas.
Maryland regulators await the NOAA study as another piece in the crab resource puzzle.
“It’s one of the things we’ll be looking at…to paint as clear a picture of the blue crab fishery as we can,” said W. Pete Jensen, fisheries director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
In proposing 1996 blue crab regulations, Maryland fishery managers also will consider the size of this year’s catch, the size of crabs harvested, and recent indicators of crab density such as catch-per-pot, Jensen said.
Blue crab protection is already on the agenda of the 1996 Maryland General Assembly.
Del. John Arnick, D-Baltimore County, has filed a bill that would ban the purchase or sale of female crabs, with fines as high as $2,000.
Arnick, who chairs a panel overseeing the emergency crabbing regulations that must be in place by April 15, said he introduced the bill on behalf of Maryland crabbers. “Various watermen and state fishermen suggested this is a better way to save the crab population,” he said.
In another bill, Arnick proposes to increase the minimum harvestable size of peeler and soft crabs to 4 inches.
NOAA’s Gillelan said the agency’s study was not aimed at “grabbing the limelight or media attention” in the midst of the politically hot crab debate.
“We had planned the study for some time,” she said, “but until now there hadn’t been enough [reliable] data available.”
Still, veteran crab watchers such as Cronin laud the NOAA study as a first step in establishing data for what should be a baywide fisheries policy.
“I hope the stock assessment will be able to do that,” Cronin said.
But he also has a long-term perspective.
“The crab is very treacherous,” he warned. “Just when you think you understand them, you stand up and say something” only to find out later, the theory was all wrong. Perhaps only this much is may be concluded with confidence: “The crab is fascinating,” Cronin said. “And delicious.” -30-