Chesapeake Bay Watermen Question Limits on Crab Harvests

Kurt Stoppkotte
for National Geographic Today
May 10, 2001
With the crabbing industry in the Chesapeake Bay on the verge of
collapse, officials in Maryland and Virginia have imposed regulations
aimed at what they say is the major cause: overfishing.

The new regulations on commercial and recreational crabbers are designed to reduce the crab harvest by 15 percent over the next three years, in an effort to preserve the U.S. $150 million-a-year industry.

But many watermen disagree that their harvests are to blame, and say the problem is much more complex.

Poor water quality, for one thing, has killed off underwater sea grasses that serve as a natural hideaway for small crabs, making them increasingly vulnerable to predatory fish.

Waterman Eddie Evans argues that the real solution to reviving the crab population lies with reducing the number of predatory fish, which could be done if the state granted more fishing licenses. "We've got millions and millions of fish in the bay," Evans said. "If we could catch more fish it could help the crab population."

Evans was interviewed by the television news show National Geographic Today.

Rapid Population Decline

The blue crab has long been a mainstay for the watermen who make their livelihood from the Chesapeake Bay.

But officials warn that the bay's crab population is declining so fast that if something isn't done to reverse the situation, no one will benefit. Female crab populations have deteriorated by 80 percent over the past 12 years.

Maryland's governor imposed new regulations that limit the watermen's workday to eight hours. They also end the crab season at the beginning of November, a month earlier than in the past.

Government officials and conservation groups argue that protective measures such as these are critically needed if the crab industry is to survive. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program confirmed that the fishery has been overexploited and that a reduction of harvests is justified.

Bill Goldsborough, a fishery scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, supports the curb on crab harvests. "I would say most sincerely that what is being attempted here is a comprehensive effort, a bay-wide effort, that for over two years has utilized the best scientific information in an attempt to improve the fishery," he said.

Livelihood Concerns

Amid the concern for preserving the bay's blue crab, many watermen feel their own welfare is being overlooked in favor of environmental concerns.

"The crabbers are going to be hurt and a lot of them will fall by the wayside," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "In the middle section of the bay it's going to be disastrous, and they're going to lose the crab pickers that work in the crab houses."

On Smith Island, a small fishing community that is fully dependent on blue crab harvests, waterman Roland Bradshaw says that local incomes could fall by 25 percent as a result of the new regulations.

"This is our livelihood, this is my living. You probably might lose your boat or your home—either one," Bradshaw said. "They're persecuting us. For the watermen, this is it."

  • This story was broadcast on National Geographic Today on May 10.

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