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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Another Crisis for the Bay

The blue crab and the Chesapeake Bay are synonymous.

Callinectes sapidus is the crab's mellifluous scientific name. Callinectes means beautiful swimmer in Greek, and sapidus is Latin for tasty.

The blue crab has enormous symbolic and actual importance.

The green, yellow, orange and blue crustacean supplies a livelihood for watermen who ply the bay in search of the elusive prey, and sport for amateurs armed with mesh nets and chicken necks dangled from strings. Millions of bay aficionados relish extracting the delicate meat from steamed hard shells, while soft shells, whose molting heralds summer, are to die for. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the blue crab is in jeopardy ["Paucity of Crabs Prompts Plan to Reduce Harvests," Metro, Feb. 29].

Scientists are increasingly concerned that the crab may be the next threatened bay species. First, it was the rockfish, which rebounded from scarcity in the 1980s only after Maryland and Virginia heavily regulated commercial fishing. Then, over the past few decades, oysters were decimated by overharvesting, pollution and parasites. In the 1970s, the annual harvest averaged 15 million bushels; in 2003, it was 53,000. Finally, in the '80s and '90s, a severe depletion of shad led Maryland and Virginia to impose commercial fishing moratoriums that have slowed the decline.

In the 1990s, the annual blue crab catch was 140 million crabs, but that was last year's total bay population. This prompted the creation of a blue crab regulatory review committee, which analyzed the crab's status, evaluated the potential of 22 regulatory measures imposed in 1994 to reverse low abundance and spawning potential, and proposed improvements.

The committee, composed mainly of crab experts from Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, discovered no evidence that the strictures had increased bay-wide stocks or harvests. It did, however, blame water pollution, continuing losses in underwater grasses and overharvesting. The committee proposed short-term measures: decreasing the season by a month and the time that no-harvest zones can be fished, requiring larger escape hatches in most crab pots and restricting the winter dredge fishery. It also offered long-term proposals, such as a procedure for tagging crab pots.

At last month's meeting of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the agency that regulates crabbing, members agreed that the Chesapeake icon's state was dire. It voted unanimously to impose the near-term limitations. The debate emphasized concerns for crab health and the watermen, who are already devastated by losing oysters and shad, and it reflected the intrinsic tension involved in the agency's statutory mandate to restore the bay and revive its seafood fisheries.

The restrictions may be another nail in the coffin for watermen. However, juvenile crabs' sharp decline suggests that they might go the way of oysters, requiring dramatic action to restore the legendary crustacean. Only time, the crabs, the watermen and the bay will tell.


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