Bad year for crabs can still be a good year for Chesapeake Bay | COMMENTARY

Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun/TNS
·4 min read

Summer approaches, and it’s traditionally a time when a Marylander’s fancy turns to a dozen Number One Jimmies steamed. The bad news is that Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are running especially scarce this year, a combination of a cool spring that reduces crab movement (and thus prevents watermen from catching them) following a bad year for reproduction. The official word on this came recently from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The state agency announced that overall crab stocks are at their lowest ever recorded by the winter dredge survey, which was started in 1990. But that surely proved no surprise to consumers fully aware of the current high prices for crabs — or perhaps recall that last year’s juvenile crab survey also produced historic lows. This spring’s crabs are simply last year’s modest population of young crabs grown up.

Now, here’s the good news. Do not despair. Crabs and crab meat remain available — for a price. Local chefs and seafood dealers don’t always like to mention it to their customers but the Chesapeake Bay is not their only source. Right now, states along the Gulf of Mexico, including Louisiana, are producing a steady inventory so one can eat guilt-free, assuming you can afford it. Obviously, the local supply will improve over the summer, but don’t expect a bonanza of affordable crabs or crabmeat at our doorstep.

Is there something that can be done to improve the outlook in the future? Absolutely. But let’s start by acknowledging that the issue can be complicated. Maryland’s crab population varies greatly from year to year in the best of times. Water currents, temperatures and tides near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at the crucial larval stage of the life cycle can have a major impact on juvenile recruitment in any given year. Layer on top of that the level of fishing pressure allowed by Maryland and Virginia and the state of the crab habitat, where water quality and certain environmental hazards can make a big difference, too. Some threats are straightforward, like the rise of invasive catfish that gobble up young crabs. Others are much larger, like the growing “dead zones” of oxygen-deprived water and the broad loss of submerged aquatic vegetation which provides cover for young crabs from predators like those catfish.

So here’s where Joe and Jane Registered Maryland Voter can come in. First, we must hold the Maryland DNR accountable. The state needs to double down on conservation efforts that spare female crabs. Overfishing may not be the greatest concern here (watermen harvest around one in four of the target population), but it is the one most readily controlled. Bay states should err on the side of caution. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the states in the Chesapeake region (and we’re particularly looking at you, Pennsylvania) need to take greater action to meet promised water quality goals, principally to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loadings. Maryland and Virginia ought to set the example here, yet there is concern that neither will make promised pollution reduction goals under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025.

Jane and Joe should be asking all those folks running for state and local office this year what they plan to do about water quality. For Maryland, that includes holding the agricultural community accountable and taking greater steps to control stormwater runoff, two pollution sources where the state is underachieving. We can’t let them get away with the usual deflections like “I support a healthier Chesapeake Bay” but then refuse to provide specifics or simply blame Baltimore’s underperforming sewage infrastructure. And certainly not “we’re already making progress,” given so much evidence to the contrary — including the drop in blue crabs.

Maryland has shown a willingness to take action in the past. The U.S. Department of Commerce declared the blue crab fishery a “disaster” in 2008, but it bounced back to some extent. Prevent overfishing and clean up the water. That’s the tried and true recipe we need to follow to keep one of Maryland’s most prized species on the menu for future generations to enjoy.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.