Introduction to the Sociological Implications of the Declining Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Fishery

These Chesapeake Men

From Chesapeake men I come,
These men a sun-tanned, quiet breed,
With eyes of English blue and faces
Lined with many a watch of sunlit waters;
These men with cautious mouths and lazy stride,
Grizzled chinned, hip-booted, oil-skinned men,
These men, they fear the Chesapeake,
And yet they would not leave her.
-- Gilbert Byron

In the late 1800s, oysters coated the Chesapeake Bay bottom so thickly that ships occasionally ran aground on them (Dominguez 1995). The shallow, tepid water provided the perfect level of salinity for molting blue crabs, and these, too, flourished (Horton 1996). On the land, communities slowly established themselves and grew, sustained financially by the incredible abundance of the Chesapeake. Watermen and shipbuilders, restauranteurs catering to seafood-seeking tourists, recreational fishers and crabbers were all attracted to the area's seemingly inexhaustible harvest, and communities based on the fishing industry began to form. Over time, the towns along the Chesapeake came to be defined by the occupations of their citizens; not only were these communities sustained financially by the harvest of the water, but the region's cultural identity was also based on the life of the watermen. The blue crab, State Crustacean of Maryland and symbol of the Chesapeake's proud heritage, appears on coffee cups, keychains, and other souvenirs. Crab festivals, complete with hardshell races and the crowning of Miss and Little Miss Crustacean, are as integral to the Chesapeake Bay communities' identities as apple pie is to America at large (Horton 1996). For the people of the Chesapeake Bay, the blue crab represents a way of life, not just a source of income.

Unfortunately, what was once thought of as inexhaustible has in recent years shown itself to be quite the contrary. Due to the devastating combination of pollution, habitat destruction, unpredictable weather events, and overharvesting, the population of oysters in the Chesapeake has dwindled to a mere fraction of its original size. In many places, it is simply unprofitable to spend the time, money, and energy to harvest oysters; in response, desperate watermen have increasingly turned to blue crabs, the last large Bay fishery, to make the bulk of their living (Goldsborough 1995). The toll that increased harvesting pressure has taken on this species is now clear. The culmination of years of slow decline occurred in 1995, when total blue crab catch dipped to a record low of 36 million. Tragically, however, the decline of the blue crab has prompted watermen to harvest even more vigorously; working longer hours and setting more pots than ever before, crabbers fight desperately to maintain their life on the water (Fincham 1994).

Forward to the Specific Sociological Impacts of the Blue Crab's Decline
An overview of the Sociological Perspective on Fisheries Management

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