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.

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