Are Blue Crab Populations Falling?

The Chesapeake Bay has been a source of income and livelihood for generations of families. However, in recent years the fish and oyster populations have been decimated by pollution and disease, forcing today's watermen to rely almost exclusively on the blue crab for survival. State officials estimate the harvest of blue crabs is worth $150 to $200 million a year, but the additional pressures on this fishery have begun to take their toll (Lloyd 1996).

In 1995, the annual Baywide monitoring of blue crabs showed a 34% drop in abundance compared with the average catch of the five previous years. The declining population of female crabs, as reported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, actually lead to state emergency regulations in September. Disgruntled fishers and industry representatives lobbied the state to reconsider their actions, which lead to the establishment of the Blue Crab Steering Committee, comprised of watermen, processors, environmental groups, natural resource officials and the state legislators. The ensuing series of public meetings across the state solicited advice and produced a set of proposals to regulate blue crab fisheries.

The proposed rules included:

* Ending the crab season, which begins April 1 and ends on Nov 30 instead of Dec 31.

* Limiting crabbing for commercial watermen to six days a week rather than seven. Under the proposed plans, crabbers would forced to take off either Sunday or Monday, except when a holiday falls on Monday.

*Changing the minimum mesh size in crab pots in some instances from one inch to one and a half inches, allowing smaller crabs to escape.

* Prohibiting crab processors and restaurants from importing the endangered sponge crabs.

The beginning of the 1996 season was dismal as commercial crabbers caught 1.5 million pounds by May, or about half of the usual harvest (Lloyd 1996). The decline in harvests made the states decision easy, as they implemented the proposed regulations on June 17, 1996. When it comes to crabbing regulations, Maryland's watermen and the State Department of Natural Resources rarely see eye to eye, but both processors and fishermen are agreeing to the proposal. The crabbing industry says they would rather help lay the ground rules now than deal later with what is thrust upon them by the state (Kline 1996).

The concern of Maryland's watermen over fishing and depleting the Chesapeake Bay's crab supply is a recent development in these waters, but great strides have been made in the last three years to co-manage this valuable resource. Besides the Blue Crab Steering Committee, the Chesapeake Bay Commission agreed to form a standing committee of legislators, watermen, and recreational crabbers with Virginia. The Committee would simply recommend action for the two states, and, more importantly, will create an atmosphere to study how cooperative management can benefit both Maryland and Virginia.

The lack of knowledge surrounding the growth of the blue crab has raised many issues and debates about the restrictions placed on the industry. However, many analysts believe that precautionary measures are necessary to compensate for the absence of research in this field. Therefore, the only question that remains is: Who do you agree with?

The Political Perspective of fisheries management

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