ANNAPOLIS – Algae blooms, dead zones and intersex fish, just three small examples of the ongoing bad news about the Chesapeake Bay.
But in the midst of these watershed woes, one professor has held onto a sense of cautious optimism when it comes to restoring the bay’s resources. And thanks to the positive effects of a recent measure to shut down a blue crab fishery, he has a reason to be hopeful.
“We have some good reasons for optimism,” said Romuald Lipcius, professor of marine science at the College of William and Mary.
Lipcius, whose research interests include the conservation and restoration of the blue crab and the Eastern oyster, sees a recent blue crab population surge as a small success, indicating a potential for saving one of the bay’s most iconic species.
Soon after Congress declared the bay’s blue crab fishery a disaster in 2008, officials closed the winter crab dredge fishery, making it illegal to catch crabs from a crab pot or peeler pot in the lower bay from December to March.
Out-of-work watermen were hired by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to retrieve abandoned crab pots, called “ghost pots,” which can inadvertently trap and kill wildlife.
These were bold, but effective, regulations, said Lipcius.
After more than a decade of population decline, a winter dredge survey conducted last year, after the moratorium, measured a significant jump in the number of blue crabs wintering in the southern portion of the bay, from 280 million in 2007-2008 to just over 400 million. Another survey will be done this winter.
The annual survey, conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, detects crabs that are buried in mud, which provides a more precise population estimate.
Although Lipcius says it will be three or four years before we can be sure about the ultimate effectiveness of these blue crab management measures, for him, this is nevertheless proof that measures put in place to address population declines can work.
Lipcius attributes the success of these particular measures to interstate cooperation and public support — the same factors behind the success of striped bass restoration in the 1990s, according to Jack Travelstead, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
Restrictions placed on the striped bass harvest, including a 1984 Maryland moratorium, allowed the population to rebound to what is today considered sustainable numbers.
“It was a stock that had literally collapsed, and we brought it back,” Travelstead said. “You can’t say that about any other species.”
According to Travelstead, this moratorium worked because of science that indicated that it was overfishing, rather than poor water quality or habitat loss, that was causing striped bass to disappear, and public support of interstate efforts to fix the problem.
“No fishery management program … will ever be successful without public support,” Travelstead said.
But even in the case of the blue crab, harvest restrictions alone are not always enough to help a species survive. Rather, the entire health of the bay must be improved.
Travelstead is “not convinced we’re going to see continued growth in that (winter blue crab) stock until we see improvements in water quality.”