Specific Sociological Implications of the Declining Chesapeake Blue Crab

"Much faster, and more irreversibly than the Chesapeake loses its water quality, we are letting human diversity and community slip away. Only by the narrowest of definitions wuld a bay with sparkling clean water, plenty of crabs, and no Ed Harrisons or Smith Islands, be considered a quality environment."

-- Tom Horton, Orion Summer 1996 issue, p. 47

In response to the alarming decrease in crab yield and the subsequent increase of harvesting pressure, myriad restrictions have been implemented, ranging from limiting the number of hours watermen can crab, to the type of gear they can use, even to the areas of the Bay they can utilize (Shields 1996). For those who depend primarily on the blue crab for their livelihood, these measures are potentially devastating. Many Chesapeake crabbers, born and raised on the water, know no other way of life than that of skipjack captain. Milford Elliot, Jr., and Ed Harrison, both over 70 years old and still clinging tenaciously to the only occupation they have ever known, the restrictions on the way they ply their trade, coupled with the added strain of having fewer crabs to capture in the first place, leaves them worried - to say the least - about their futures (Horton 1996; Goldsborough 1995). The backbreaking work doesn't daunt Harrison; on the contrary, he says that if he couldn't crab, it would be the end of him (Horton 1996). Crabbing is clearly much more than an occupation for many watermen like Harrison; who they are is inextricable from what they do.

Even for those who don't depend on crabbing for their income, the restrictions will impose significant, unwelcome changes in their lives. Over half a million Marylanders are recreational crabbers; with the new regulations in the fishery, licenses will be required even to partake in the time-honored tradition of sitting on the dock at the end of a long day and netting a few crabs now and then (Fincham 1994). Traditions like this and others enrich the lives of those who enjoy them and help construct the identity of the communities in which they live; with the disappearance of the blue crab, more will be lost than jobs.

Not only the crabs are affected by the decline of blue crabs and the subsequent tightening of regulations regarding their harvesting. Processors at the Van Dyke crab-picking plant in Cambridge, Maryland, only work three days a week due to the small harvests. Pat Cannon, a worker at the plant, says that with a weekly paycheck of about $76, she worries about providing for her high school-age daughter (Goldsborough 1995). In a community where basically the only jobs available for over a century have been somehow related to the fishing industry, people like Cannon are left without much hope for other opportunities to sustain themselves and their lifestyles. Restauranteurs are forced to import crabs rather than buying locally; even McDonald's recently began using canned crab from India rather than fresh Chesapeake crab meat in their crab cakes, which created enormous tension in the community (The Washington Times 1993).

More drastic animosity was unleashed on the remote Smith Island in 1995, when arsonists destroyed a storage shack used by a conservation group that advocated stricter regulations on the crab fishery. A dead cormorant was found in an aquarium inside the building; a tourist boat was drenched in sticky oil. This rash of vandalism is widely suspected to be the work of watermen, who are frightened and enraged by the implications of further restrictions on their way of life and source of income (Dominguez 1995; Horton 1995). Many watermen take issue with conservationists' insistence that overharvesting is a major factor in the decline of the Chesapeake blue crab; instead, they cite natural "cycles" of crab abundance and decline based on unpredictable weather events and climatic variation.

Looking Towards the Future

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