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The Crisis Continues

Blue crabs at quarter-century low

Female blue crabs, with their ­distinctive red-tipped claws and dome-shaped underbellies, can spawn multiple times, releasing ­millions of eggs. As their numbers drop, the overall population suffers.

     The 2013 Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest was the lowest in 25 years. The 2014 numbers look to be at least as bad, perhaps worse.
    How could this happen?
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources has had some of its best scientists and managers working to conserve this keystone species, one of the most revered (and consumed) in Maryland.
    Despite this concentration of talent and effort, the female blue crab population has decreased by 80 percent within the last decade. Thus, the overall population of blue crabs has fallen to the edge of collapse once again.
    Officially the crisis has been blamed on unforeseen environmental factors such as severe cold, natural predators, parasites, unusual weather and unpredictable ocean currents. Those forces do inevitably impact the overall population of our blue crab.
    But there is one reliable and utterly controllable tool available to resource managers that can ultimately protect the population levels: varying female crab harvests and, in particular, the commercial female crab harvest, as the recreational harvest of females is already prohibited.
    Almost 20 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began a vigorous campaign to reduce the female blue crab harvest, arguing that females were critical to the health of the species. The immediate results were death threats to some of the staff and the burning of a Foundation education center.
    When decisions have to be made that can affect the commercial fishing industry and the livelihoods of individuals, emotions can run high. Nothing came of the campaign to protect the female crabs. The harvest continued unabated.
    The blue crab population subsequently collapsed to a declared federal crisis level by 2008. DNR finally had to acknowledge that the female crab harvest levels were based on flawed science: Female Chesapeake blue crabs do not spawn just once in their lifetimes; many spawn multiple times.
    The ecological emergency had one positive effect: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia began cooperating to rebuild the depleted species. Unprecedented protection for the females was put in place by all. The result was an extraordinary and rapid resurgence in blue crab numbers. Within two or three years, the population rebounded to pre-crisis levels.
    Unfortunately, so then did the resumption of the commercial female crab harvest — with predictable results.
    We are in crisis again. This recurring situation is a strong clue that officials charged with the management of the blue crab have failed to account for unanticipated and uncontrollable mortality events that inevitably happen in a large, open ecosystem like the Chesapeake. We have continued to harvest too many crabs, especially females.
    Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report urging minimizing risks to crab populations by immediately protecting juvenile female blue crabs while state agencies consider future changes to regulations to rebuild the population.
    The Foundation also called for creating sanctuaries in different parts of the Bay to further protect females; improving on the accountability and reporting of both commercial and recreational harvests; and moving agency management review cycles to better (and more promptly) respond to natural population fluctuations.
    Part of the problem remains unaddressed: How to rebuild blue crab numbers and maintain the population of both males and females at a healthy level without hurting the incomes of the many hard-working watermen that bring them to market.
    Assuming Maryland intends to continue the unofficial policy of providing stability to the commercial crabbing industry, some mechanism other than the exploitation of the blue crab had better be devised.