Alarm Over Blue Crab Decline

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

COLONIAL BEACH, Va., April 15 -- The governors of Virginia and Maryland pledged Tuesday to make a drastic cut in the harvest of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, citing new data that show the struggling species continues to be heavily overfished.

Appearing on the banks of the Potomac River downstream of Washington, Govs. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Martin O'Malley (D) said they had instructed state regulators to reduce the amount of female blue crabs caught this year by 34 percent.

Chesapeake watermen have said that kind of cut could make it impossible to stay in the business and devastate bayside villages where the best work is on the water.

But the governors said it was a necessary, if painful, step.

"The price of inaction is greater than the price of action," Virginia's Kaine said, because the watermen would be hurt more if populations of the bay's most famous crustacean were allowed to collapse. "We do not want to wake up in five or 10 years and realize we've lost this very important part of who we are."

The unusual joint appearance underscored how quickly, and how deeply, the blue crab's decline has come to worry the two states this year. Blue crabs thrived through decades of pollution and heavy fishing, but now they seem defeated by the bay's problems. The population has fallen about two-thirds since the early 1990s.

Maryland and Virginia had already proposed serious cutbacks in the harvest this year. Tuesday's announcement showed how far they are willing to go.

For years, the states have tried to preserve both the crabs and the watermen who harvest them -- another shrinking, romanticized Chesapeake breed and the heart of a $125 million regional industry.

Now, scientists say, in the short term it might be impossible to help them both.

"There has to be less fishermen" if there are to be more crabs, said Douglas Lipton, a resource economist at the University of Maryland. Otherwise, Lipton said, "the numbers just don't match up."

Tuesday was not the first time Maryland and Virginia have proposed cutting back on the harvest of female crabs, emphasizing the protection of females because they carry the eggs that can rebuild the population. "More moms, more babies," one Maryland official said.

But female crabs make up a significant portion of the harvest in the lower part of the bay, where they "run" in large numbers during annual migrations.

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