ST. MICHAELS — The first of three panel discussions entitled “The State of the Crab” took place on Sunday at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
The focus of the first panel discussion was primarily the cultural and social dynamics of the crabbing industry, as well as the history of harvesting and industry regulations. Nearly 25 attendees took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about where the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population stands.
Michael Buckley, 103.1 WRNR’s host of The Sunday Brunch and Voices of the Chesapeake Bay, and Washington College professor of oral histories at the C.V. Starr Center moderated the program.
Three panelists were invited to participate in the first discussion. Brenda K. Davis has been the Blue Crab Program manager with the Department of Natural Resources for the past five years. Her department is responsible for monitoring the life cycle of the blue crab.
Davis said the life cycle of the blue crab is critically important to understanding where the Chesapeake Bay crab population stands. She said crab larvae experience an incredibly high mortality rate because they have so many predators, but the large number of eggs produced by mature female blue crabs has helped to sustain their numbers in the past.
Predators are not the only challenge crabs face. Water temperatures and salinity levels factor into a successful life cycle. Due to the many changes within the Chesapeake Bay between fresh and salt water, the life cycle of the blue crab is a difficult journey.
Davis said Bay-wide management of blue crabs is critical to their sustainability as a resource and an industry. She said the winter dredge survey includes the monitoring of 1,500 random sites, and is is the one chance to get an accurate picture of where the spawning age abundance stands within the Bay.
Davis said prior to 2008, and since about 1994, hefty restrictions were placed on watermen to make them less efficient in their harvesting. However, she said she finds watermen are an “extremely inventive group, and can become more efficient in lots of different ways.”
In 2008, Davis said, the advice of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment was that it would be prudent and even necessary to harvest fewer females to see a turnaround in the blue crab population.
“This was the first time Maryland and Virginia and the Potomac River changed their regulations to protect females,” she said.
One of the highest abundance of female blue crabs was seen in 2010, and 2011 saw the highest abundance of juvenile blue crabs. Then both numbers plummeted inexplicably, Davis said. Just focusing on restricting female blue crab harvesting was not going to be the sole solution to the crab population’s decline.
“In reality the change in management strategy has been very successful. We have done what we set out to do. The problem that we’re facing right now isn’t our harvest rate, and unfortunately there is no smoking gun that everyone would love to have,” Davis said. “My guess is that it’s going to be a contribution of a lot of different things.”
Davis does not discredit Tropical Storm Lee; Hurricane Irene; Hurricane Sandy; the many predators of the blue crab, including striped bass; and the extremely cold bottom temperatures and ice cover last winter, which contributed to the over-wintering mortality rate.
The second panelist invited to participate in the discussion was Dave Kirwin, a waterman who has worked for 48 years near Rock Hall, and uses crab pots. Kirwin says his working relationship with Davis has improved over the last few years.
“I know now that they’re not our enemies. They’re just trying to help. We don’t agree on everything, but things are getting better. They listen a little bit more to us, and we listen a little bit more to them,” said Kirwin.
Kirwin is part of the Blue Crab Design Team, which is made up of representatives from 13 counties, watermen, DNR and a software company that is working on electronic reporting as a way to monitor the blue crab population. Electronic reporting helps Maryland DNR obtain more accurate, up-to-the-minute reports on harvesting. Currently, the program is not mandated by the state, but is a part of a three-year pilot program that Kirwin and nearly 150 other watermen are taking part in to help monitor the blue crab population.
Davis said she foresees the program eventually being mandatory industry-wide.
“It’s one of the first times that the industry has included fisherman in the decision making. I’d like to think that we’ve been invited up to the table, so we have a say,” Kirwin said.
A cost recovery program is also a recent addition to managing the fishery, according to Davis. Kirwin said an increase in the crabbing license fee from $50 to $100 took place this year, and Davis mentioned a new $215 harvesting fee for watermen. Kirwin said that it is costly to get into business on the water.
“It costs me $2,000 for a crabbing license, and it costs a doctor $450 for his license. I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to make more money,” said Kirwin. He says that, as a parent, he would love for his sons to take over his business one day.
“But what’s it going to look like in 30 years? I don’t know,” Kirwin said. Kirwin said his two sons are not employed on the water, for now.
Kirwin said he does not target female crabs, primarily because they are worth less money, but also because of the danger overharvesting female crabs poses to his industry.
“I go after the big males. The ‘number one’ crabs. They bring me the premium price; I have to handle less crabs and I get bit less,” Kirwin said.
Kirwin said that he starts harvesting crabs in May, and that last year, from May through July was successful. After Aug. 1 last year, his numbers plummeted and he decided to harvest oysters during the fall after an eight-year oystering hiatus. This year, Kirwin said, the cold winter did not enable him to start harvesting crabs until the end of May, and the entire summer season has been slow.
“The only saving grace has been the prices. That’s the only way we’ve been able to stay in business. Bait still costs us the same amount, fuel, upkeep on the boats. Everybody’s got to make a living,” Kirwin said.
“We all have theories on what it is ... it’s a combination of everything; water quality, Bay grasses. Overharvesting is not one of the problems. A waterman is not gonna go catch the last crab. It’s not feasible for us to do,” Kirwin said. “We want something to be here for our children.”
Local author and Salisbury University professor Tom Horton was the final panelist invited to participate in the panel discussion.
Horton said watermen had a lot of power in the Maryland legislature of the 1960s even though their numbers had begun to decline, and mentioned that a lot of time in the 1970s and 1980s was wasted in meetings discussing whether there was a problem with blue crab population levels in the Bay.
Horton said that those from outside the city, suburban kids who grew up outside Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties won’t have the attachment to watermen and their cultures, and the connection to the culture of the Bay that those who grew up on the Bay have.
“When push comes to shove, they’ll vote for more regulations and watermen can adapt. Not in a mean-spirited sort of way, but in a detached way,” said Horton.
Horton said that when he gets down about the state of the Bay, he reminds himself that, “we haven’t known how to do the right job for that long.” He says exploiting the Chesapeake Bay crab is recent, and that up until the 1950s, most of the Bay was a crab sanctuary. However, Horton said that if the crabbing industry failed, it would be a significant economic blow to the region.
“The State of the Crab” is the second of an annual series of discussions and programming called “Community Conversations.” The program’s emphasis is centered around public discussion on issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay region.
A special exhibit is on display at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Van Lennep Auditorium during the duration of these discussions, which will take place the next two Sundays. Chesapeake artist Marc Castelli’s paintings featuring watermen and photographer David Harp’s images of Smith Islanders at work will be featured. The theme for next week’s discussion is “How Did We Get Here?” and takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 21.
“The State of the Crab” is supported by the Talbot County Watermen’s Association and Chesapeake Landing Restaurant. The program is free and open to the public.