Md. Crab Harvest Dropped in 2007

A team of researchers at the William and Mary Virginia Institute of Marine Science are trying to better understand why the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is in decline. Video by Pierre Kattar/
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Last year's catch of blue crabs from Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay was the second-lowest on record, as environmental damage, drought and past overfishing helped drive down the state's most valuable seafood harvest, state officials said yesterday.

About 21.8 million pounds of blue crab was taken by watermen during the April-to-December season, officials at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said. That was about 6 million pounds less than in the previous year and not much more than the all-time low, 20.2 million pounds in 2000.

"We're concerned about the health of the blue crab fishery and about the health of the blue crab itself," said Lynn Fegley, a fisheries biologist who oversees blue crab programs at the department. The "fishery," in this case, means the industry that depends on the crabs.

In response, Natural Resources officials said Maryland would soon begin seeking comment from watermen, scientists and other government agencies about the possibility of altering harvest rules.

"We need to figure out a way to rebuild the population of crabs in the bay," said Frank W. Dawson III, an assistant secretary of the department. "And that's really going to take a long-term plan."

The bay's blue crab population has been at low levels for about a decade. In Virginia last month, state regulators proposed regulations aimed at cutting back that state's harvest from the bay.

Among the problems confronting the crab population: Pollution creates "dead zones," where the shellfish struggle to breathe. Warm weather has contributed to die-offs of underwater grasses that crabs use as nurseries. And for years, scientists have said watermen were taking too much of the bay's crab population.

Last year's harvest was also affected by the weather, officials said. A summer drought caused the bay to become saltier, which sent blue crabs fleeing upstream in bay tributaries or north toward the head of the Chesapeake.

Unable to find crabs in their areas of the bay, many watermen simply gave up, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

"The crabbers in the middle part of the bay and the lower bay . . . they couldn't get to the crabs," Simns said yesterday, "so most of them just laid off this summer."

Tom Miller, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said last year's harvest could be a good sign for the bay if it indicates that watermen caught a smaller part of the crab population. That would leave more crabs to reproduce.

But the harvest drop could be a very bad sign, Miller said, if it means that there were simply fewer crabs to catch.

"We really don't know the answer to that question," he said.

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