The Battle over Blue Crabs:
Capping the Last Great Fishery
By Michael W. Fincham
Amajor debate about the blue crab fishery has been heating up in the halls of Annapolis and Richmond over the fall and winter. Worried about increasing fishing pressure on fluctuating crab stocks, resource managers and lawmakers at both ends of the Bay have been considering controversial changes in this historic fishery.
In Maryland these changes could include requiring a license for the first time for any and all recreational crabbing-even for old fashioned Maryland traditions like end-of-the day, end-of-the-dock crab netting. The rough estimate is that up to a half-million Marylanders net a few crabs here and pot a few crabs there. Their total take could equal 25% to 50% of the commercial harvests. In a good year that means 12 to 25 million pounds or more in Maryland alone. Virginia made a start on recreational licenses last year, requiring licenses for any crabber who used more than two pots or caught more than one bushel a day.
There may be more debate about a new recreational license in Maryland where the Department of Natural Resources wants to use the new license to eliminate an oddity called the non-commercial license. Now held by about 10,000 people, the license allowed crabbers to use an unlimited amount of trotline and up to 50 traps or rings-as long as they don't take more than two bushels a day. With all that gear, observers suspect an active black market for blue crabs has been in swing along a lot of the highways and backroads around the Bay.
The proposed recreational license would only allow ten traps and 1,000 feet of trotline-a gear allowance opposed as too broad by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The new license would also set a new limit of one bushel per person per day and two bushels per boat.
Major debates this winter will center on changes proposed for commercial crabbing. In both states fishery managers have started work on "capping the fishery," and that's where the controversy comes in: For a hundred years the blue crab fishery has been open to anyone who could buy a commercial license. Capping the fishery means putting a hard limit on the number of men and women who can go crabbing for money on the Chesapeake.
Why do managers want this limit? Because they think there is a limit on how many crabs can be fished out of the Bay and still leave a healthy fishery-just as there was a limit on how many shad and rockfish and oysters could be fished out. The common tragedy that played out with each of these fisheries went something like this: with early declines in harvests, the laws of supply and demand sent prices rising, spurring more watermen to work longer hours and harder days depleting a dwindling resource at an even faster rate.
With the crash of these mainstay fisheries, the gold rush n more frantic, causing many observers to warn that another crisis could be coming. "There are all these early warning signs that we are teetering close to trouble," warns Jack Travelstead of the Virginia Marine Resource Commission. The clearest sign came two years ago when Baywide crab harvests dropped from 91 million pounds in 1991 to 54 million pounds in 1992. For Virginia "that was one of the lowest levels since the 1950s," explains Travelstead.
Even before the slump of '92, there were other, subtler signs of trouble. For several years more watermen than ever before were entering the crab fishery where they were working longer hours and setting out more crab pots than during any era in Bay history. What the scientists call catch-per-unit effort was cut in half. Compared to earlier years watermen were working twice as hard to catch the same number of crabs.
The harvest clearly had maxed out, but the influx of hard working fishermen just as clearly had not. How long could blue crab stocks hold out under this kind of constantly increasing assault? After the recent crashes of rockfish and oysters, a blue crab crisis would triple the tragedy. "A lot of the watermen are worried," explains Travelstead. "The crab fishery is their last resource. When that is gone, they are gone."
In Maryland capping the fishery starts with the Department of Natural Resources asking the Maryland legislature for authority to limit the sale of commercial licenses. There are about 6,000 watermen holding commercial crab licenses now, plus several thousand watermen holding general unlimited licenses that allow them to fish any commercial species-including crabs. To slow down the flow of crabbers entering an overcrowded fishery, DNR had already set a two-year waiting period for new licenses.
Under the new approach the flow of new entries would halt, and over several years the number of licensed crabbers would change-perhaps even be cut in half. If current legislation passes, DNR would be able to stop selling commercial licenses, thus halting entry into the fishery. "No new licenses would be issued until we come up with a number (of crabbers) that everybody agrees should be in the fishery," explains Steve Early of the Tidewater Fisheries Division in Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.
DNR would also limit the number of crab pots that watermen set out-a move that may stir as much controversy as limited entry. Over the last decade crabbers have dramatically jumped the number of pots they set out each year. According to Tom Horton in Turning the Tide, watermen who once worked perhaps 100 pots were fishing up to 400 by the mid-80s and even 800 pots were not unusual. Now some crews of two or three watermen have been working 1,000 to 1,500 pots per boat.
"Limiting the number of licensees won't do it (cap the fishery) unless you also limit their effort," says Early. "Fishermen are well noted for their ability to be innovative in applying effort to a fishery." DNR is proposing a limit of 300 pots per license, which they estimate is now the average number of pots in use by watermen. They also propose a limit of 900 pots per boat. The legislation asks no authority to set daily catch limits.
At the south end of the Chesapeake, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has no plans for limiting crab potting this year, but it already moved last fall to begin capping the most controversial fishery in the Bay-the winter dredge fishery for blue crabs. That fishery focuses on the waters just inside the mouth of the Bay-waters crammed with "sooks," adult pregnant female crabs who migrate south during the fall to overwinter along the bottom while their sponge-like egg masses mature for spawning.
Virginians feel protective in a worried way about one of their traditional fisheries, arguing that a fishery that lasted through so many decades of good harvests is probably not to blame for any recent slumps. They cite estimates that only 15% of the Bay's spawning stock are lost here. Eugene Cronin and other scientists put the number near 20%.
After this winter, however, Virginia will sell no new dredging licenses. Watermen have this year as a window for entering the fishery and being grandfathered in for the future. Starting next winter, no new licenses will be available until the number of dredgers drops below 225 through attrition. What worries Virginia experts the most is the same thing that worries Maryland experts-the rapid addition of so many new fishermen into fishery that is not adding enough new crabs.
Managing the blue crab fishery is never simple or noncontroversial in Maryland-and this year the effort could be especially complicated. As legislative proposals move onto the table in Annapolis, lawmakers in a number of committees will probably hear testimony from groups as diverse as DNR, the Maryland Waterman's Association, the Maryland Saltwater Fisherman's Association, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, EPA, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as from university researchers at a number of labs and individual scientists like Eugene Cronin. If, after all the hearings and headaches, the legislature and DNR take the first giant steps towards capping the state's last great fishery, they could surely change forever the way millions of Marylanders go after their favorite shellfish.
By the same token, if no one takes any steps and the fishery fails like shad and oysters and rockfish once did, then the changes that follow could be even more painful for everyone.