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Will crab sidle off to oblivion?

June 15, 2003 1:07 am

WHEN I WAS a kid growing up in Baltimore, my dad and I would make an occasional summer-morning trip to the fish market at Fells Point, where we would buy a bunch of live crabs and take them home to steam.

Whether they knew what they were in for is hard to say, but getting them from the carton into the steamer pot was always a challenge. My dad handled the transfer pretty well, but by accident or on purpose, one or two always would get loose in the kitchen, and we'd have corral the escapees while keeping our toes clear of angry pinchers.

Ever since those days, there's been little more enticing to me than sitting down to a mess of crabs and picking away. Just a knife; no mallets allowed. If you wiggle that backfin and pull just right, out comes a big lump of succulent meat that sends you directly to culinary heaven. When beer was later added to the experience, I knew the magnetism of life in the Chesapeake Bay region would never let me go.

Word that the bay's crab population is in serious decline has me worried. It's not just that the crabs seem smaller now, or that the price is ludicrous, but rather that the blue crab's plight is indicative of all that is wrong with the bay and its once-flourishing fisheries.

Rob Brumbaugh, a fisheries scientist in Norfolk with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is about as intimate with the crab situation as one can get. In one sense, he says, crab harvests have always been wildly cyclical. But they would range from good to huge. Over the past decade, however, the numbers have declined but failed to rebound. There's never been a sustained period as bad as this, he says.

And if the crab fishery ever collapses, the impact on jobs, local and state economies, and the worldwide passion for the estuary and what comes out of it could be irreparably damaged.

Politicians on all levels these days are the rope in a tug of war between funding priorities. From homeland defense to the elementary school around the corner, the squeaky wheels squeak even louder when there's less money to go around.

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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