By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Chesapeake Bay's iconic and profitable blue crabs face suffocation, hunger and cannibalism as dead zones continue to expand across the estuary, draining oxygen from the water and killing off enough clams and worms to feed 60 million crabs.
That bleak assessment came yesterday in a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the nonprofit environmental group that monitors the bay and the multimillion-dollar industries it supports.
The foundation's president, William C. Baker, said that without critical support from the Environmental Protection Agency, efforts by states to clean up the bay will continue to falter.
"They have been undercut by the EPA, which has been worse than missing in action," Baker said. "They have been a negative factor. They have not been enforcing the Clean Water Act. They have relaxed restrictions on air pollution, specifically on coal-fired power plants, and they've cut back on funding to states for things like sewage treatment plant improvements, and that's the low-hanging fruit when it comes to pollution."
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that government administrators of bay cleanup efforts tried to conceal for years that their efforts were failing, to maintain a continued flow of federal and state money for the project.
The dramatic decline of the crab population in less than two decades -- from 791 million in 1990 to 260 million in 2007 -- has been well documented, but the foundation's report quantifies for the first time that 75,000 metric tons of the food that crabs eat are being lost each year as the dead zones expand and shift through the bay.
Those oxygen-deprived zones send crabs fleeing into more shallow waters, where they turn to cannibalism for lack of food, are gobbled up by predators or are caught in crab pots. Sometimes they literally crawl out of the water to breathe.
That desperate migration is a temporary bonanza for watermen, who set their pots in increasingly shallow depths to catch crabs herded by a shift in the dead zone. But there is a long-term price: As occasional lucky day-crabbers fill their wicker baskets, watermen are harvesting crabs at a faster pace than nature can replenish them, so the annual catch continues to drop.
The declining harvest has resulted in a 40 percent drop since 1998 in the number of people who hold crabbing-related jobs, costing Maryland and Virginia $640 million between 1998 and 2006, according to Virginia Institute of Marine Science data cited in the report.
The report was produced by foundation staff members Bill Goldsborough, fisheries program director, and senior writer Tom Pelton, who interviewed 12 scientists and other Chesapeake Bay authorities.
They concluded that the decline of the crab population can be reversed only through a combination of stringent pollution controls and enforceable limits on the number of crabs taken by watermen each year.
The report says the EPA and three bay-region states -- Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania -- should set limits on the maximum amount of polluting nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from runoff and septic fields that the bay can tolerate in a given day.
Federal and state agencies should better enforce clean water laws, the report says, particularly for sewage treatment plants and farms whose fertilizer runoff contributes to dead zones. New laws and regulations are needed to replace Clean Air Act provisions that were scaled back by the Bush administration.
In a statement yesterday, Benjamin H. Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, said, "EPA wants a cleaner and healthier Bay and is committed to holding polluters accountable and to using all the right tools to accelerate and sustain progress with our many partners throughout the entire watershed."
Baker sounded optimistic about prospects for environmental gains under President-elect Barack Obama and about Obama's EPA nominees. He dismissed the notion that hard economic times present a challenge to potentially costly environmental programs.
"Economic stimulus efforts always have improved the environment rather than been a drag on it," Baker said. "Things like sewage treatment plant improvements put people to work. And if we have to build more roads, let's make them the best roads environmentally possible."
Baker said that when nature has a hand in what flows into the bay, the results have been dramatic; in drought years, lack of rainfall cuts polluting runoff and sewage treatment plants emit less because they aren't burdened with storm runoff.
"We've seen the bay do some pretty remarkable bounce-backs," Baker said. "The [crab] species will respond pretty dramatically to improved water quality."