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Will crab sidle off to oblivion? page 2
Crab woes bring back memories of days when they were more plentiful.

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Date published: 6/15/2003



While the crucial importance of the Chesapeake Bay's health is slowly gaining recognition, the enthusiasm over the technology available still wanes when costs are made clear. Price tags in the billions always give state representatives sticker shock, even when the cost is spread out over many years.

If overfishing and disease are responsible for the near-demise of the bay oyster, overfishing and pollution are threatening the blue crab. Without oysters, Brumbaugh points out, watermen have turned to crabbing year-round. That adds pressure to the crab population at a time when elected officials are bickering over the cost of curbing the pollution that helps hold crab numbers down.

Now, this part is really important for understanding how water quality affects crabs. The nitrogen and phosphorus that come out of wastewater-treatment plants and that run off fertilized farm fields and private lawns serve as food for algae. Algae blooms block light from getting below the water surface to help underwater grasses grow. Tiny and peeling crabs seek refuge in the grasses when they are most vulnerable to creatures higher in the food chain. No grasses, no protection.

There's an ongoing effort to provide a crabbing-free avenue of safe haven for the length of the bay, from the fresher, cooler waters of Maryland, to the salty, long-protected spawning grounds at the bay's mouth in Virginia. It's not completely legislated yet, and even if it eventually is, the lack of grasses will leave crabs at the mercy of subsurface predators. If harvesting continues unabated outside the safety zone, few crabs will be around to reach it.

Helping the blue crab rebound, Brumbaugh says, will take a collaborative effort on the part of Maryland and Virginia. That's disconcerting as well, because we all know that Maryland and Virginia can't even agree on the time of day. Maybe that will change if their leaderships realize how sensible it is for two neighboring states to cooperate rather than feud over every issue.

It would also help if officials move on from saying how seriously they take the imperiled Chesapeake Bay to offering a concrete plan for coming up with the money to fix it.

As I write this, I have a recurring vision of myself, sitting in a rocker, talking to the grandkids: "Well, Richie, there used to be the strangest-looking critters in that water. We'd steam 'em up, tear their legs off, and pull their guts out to get to that sweet meat. No better way to spend a summer afternoon. I guess you had to be there, Richie. Don't run off."

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

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