Watermen, Scientists propose solutions to dropping crab population as they await

MARYLAND – A recent MDNR report that found a 3-year decline in female blue crab populations has environmental advocates and watermen calling for action to be taken to protect the bay.

The report, conducted this winter measuring 1,5000 randomized locations stops short of naming a cause for the drop, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the list of possible causes includes industrial runoff from wastewater plants along the Patapsco River, fertilizer runoff from Pennsylvania as well as a decline in bay floor grasses.

“To hear that the wastewater plant is not updating their operations is disturbing and we want to see that changed,” said Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden.

Those issues are also front of mind for the President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association Robert T. Brown.

“The Chesapeake Bay was not meant to be a sewage system,” he said.

Both agree that one way to boost the crabs is to reduce regulation around the catching of blue catfish, a non-native species introduced to the bay in the 70s which acts as a predator of young crabs.

“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other organizations are actively encouraging recreational anglers to target blue catfish,” Colden said.

However where watermen and scientists disagree is the speed at which these solutions can turn the trend around, and what additional steps are warranted.

Colden believes these measures are all long-term solutions, many of which are included in the Chesapeake Bay CleanUp and a reduction in carb harvesting is necessary to give the population a chance to rebound.

“You ‘ll have to adjust the amount of fishing that’s going on so that the total amount of crabs lost either naturally or through the fisheries does not exceed a level that would be sustainable,” Colden said adding “in the short term there may still need to be adjustments made to blue crab fishery management to allow the fishery to operate in the context of these environmental changes.”

Brown believes the bay is not yet close enough to that level to warrant a drastic reduction, which he says would hurt the waterman industry’s bottom line.

“It’s too premature to make any harsh cuts, or anything like that, maybe adjusted a little bit but not much because it’s the nature of the crab itself,” he said.

He tells us increase fuel, parts, and labor prices are already squeezing watermen, before any loss of revenue from a potential harvest limit.

“It’s really tough and we don’t watch a knee-jerk reaction because that kills our livelihood,” he said.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, slashing harvesting figures is nothing new, and was already done in 2008 when the level of crabs was deemed to be even drier than the current report.  That reduction saw a population increase, which is what they say want to see happen again.

‘The crabs that aren’t here now the juveniles are next year’s harvest and so we want to ensure that this is a sustainable and growing population moving forward,” Colden said.

The ultimate answer to what will be done however won’t be decided by either group, as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is slated to update their guidance for the remainder of the crabbing season in June, codifying any adjustment harvest counts. Sediment and Nutrient runoff, that both sources point to are included in the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup targets, but as of January 2022, all 3 states included have missed their targets.

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