Chesapeake Bay crabs are making a big comeback

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; A01

GRASONVILLE, MD. -- And now for something completely different: good news about the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake's blue crabs, in decline for a decade, are in the middle of an extraordinary comeback, officials in Maryland and Virginia said Wednesday. The estuary's crab population has more than doubled in two years, they said, reaching its highest level since 1997.

The chief reason, officials said, is a set of limits placed on the crab harvest in 2008. These were aimed at protecting more female crabs, which can produce millions of baby crabs apiece -- but not if they're turned into she-crab soup first.

These catch limits had a cost: They cut deeply into the income of some watermen and seafood dealers. But scientists said the crab is now an ecological success story, which stands out in the Chesapeake's grim history of over-fishing and pollution.

"Something like this is really rare to see in marine fisheries . . . to go from the situation where the crab had been over-fished and nearing possible collapse, to a point where it is now being sustainably fished," said Rom Lipcius, a marine scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"I would be happy to go out and eat a bunch of hard crabs," Lipcius said. "In the last couple of years, I really felt uncomfortable about it."

The crab's latest population numbers were announced at a waterside crab house here, a few miles over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was an only-in-Maryland moment: With a bushel of steamed crabs at his feet, the top elected official in the state was nearly shouting about the changing fortunes of a crustacean.

"There are a few days when you can actually stand up in front of your neighbors and say, 'You know what, this part of the Chesapeake Bay is getting better,' " said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). "This is one of those days."

His excitement was echoed in Virginia, where Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a statement saying, "This is great news for everyone who makes their living by crabbing and for everyone who enjoys genuine Chesapeake Bay crab cakes and she-crab soup."

The population figures announced Wednesday were gathered during a "dredge survey" this winter, in which researchers dragged a metal scoop through the mud at the bay's bottom, and counted the crabs they found in hibernation. A similar survey last year found the first hints of a comeback: More female crabs were surviving as a result of the new rules.

But they had to wait another year to see whether those females were reproducing enough to rebuild the population. This year, the answer was yes.

The survey turned up large numbers of quarter-sized crabs that had hatched in the previous year. They helped push the population up by 60 percent over last year, to about 658 million crabs bay-wide.

"It's the best news in 10 years," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group of state legislators that advises the Chesapeake cleanup effort. "But it is not what the crab population used to be."

The crabs -- bright blue underwater, pinkish-red on diners' tables -- held out the longest of the Chesapeake's iconic species before succumbing to over-fishing and pollution. The Chesapeake held 852 million of them in 1993. But, like oysters, shad, sturgeon and rockfish before them, their numbers dropped.

By 2007, the crab's population was just one-third what it had been. Larry Simns, of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the oysters' decline made that of the crabs worse.

"We're putting all our watermen on the crabs," because oysters often aren't available to catch, Simns said. "We need other resources to catch, to keep us busy."

In 2008, Virginia and Maryland lowered the number of female crabs that could be taken at certain times of the year, with the aim of reducing the overall harvest of females by 34 percent. Virginia also banned dredging crabs out of their winter burrows to sell -- a practice that captured pregnant females. Both states said they were reluctant to ease these rules now, wanting to make sure the crabs' comeback isn't undercut.

Officials said the recovery meant that the total crab harvest went up in 2009. Despite the limits on females, there were more crabs to catch.

This year, officials said, they think this increased supply could cut the price of steamed crabs for Washington area seafood eaters. But that's just a theory: The cold spring has kept Chesapeake crabs inactive, so the local catch has been low. Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, near Annapolis, is charging $75 or more for a dozen "supers" -- imported from the Carolinas and Louisiana.

Wednesday's good news came too late in Wingate, Md., a marshy outpost on the Eastern Shore, where Jennings Tolley closed a seafood-dealing business his family had started in 1920. He said the tightened regulations had lowered crab catches in his area, leaving him with nothing to buy and re-sell.

"They could give a damn or less. They want to kill our infrastructure. They've killed mine," Tolley said. Would he reopen now that the crab is coming back? "I'm not going to open, ever."

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