- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

RIDGE, Md.

Chesapeake Bay crabber Paul Kellam has advice for the teenage boys who help tend his traps every summer: You better have a backup plan. It’s an anxious summer for watermen harvesting the Chesapeake’s best-loved seafood, the blue crab. The way some see it, the crabbing business here isn’t just dying. It’s already dead.

Crabs have thrived in the bottom muck of the Chesapeake and its tributaries even as centuries of overfishing harmed oysters, fish and other species in the country’s largest estuary. Now blue crabs also are in trouble. And if they go, a way of life will go with them.

“There was a time when crabbers were only out here from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now, it’s about all we have left,” says Mr. Kellam, 53, steering his 30-year-old rig “Christy” out of the Potomac River and onto the Bay for a day of crabbing.

The Bay’s blue-crab stock is down about 65 percent since 1990 due to overfishing and water pollution, say Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers. The states have imposed steep cuts on this year’s female crab harvest to reduce the number of crabs taken by more than a third.

For Mr. Kellam and his neighbors in southern Maryland, where the working rigs and crab-picking houses that sustained these communities for generations have been replaced by yachts and vacation homes, hopes are dim that the blue crabs will ever come back.

“It’s looking worse every year,” says Bob McKay, who at 74 is the oldest working waterman in St. Mary’s County. He still sells crabs out of a shed in his yard but doubts the industry will live much longer than he does.

Watermen have turned to real estate and automobile repair. They’ve opened seafood restaurants and bakeries.

The best way to make money on the Chesapeake these days is taking businessmen from the District and Philadelphia on charter fishing trips. Those who still rely on crabbing are further hurt by a double punch of higher fuel costs and an economic downturn that’s meant fewer consumers spending as much as $200 on a bushel of crabs.

“People don’t have the disposable income,” said Mr. Kellam, who spends up to $150 a day on diesel, which costs about $5 a gallon at a nearby marina.

There was a time when Chesapeake watermen made their living off the winter oyster harvest, using hand tongs and later power dredges to supply most of the world’s oysters. But disease and overharvesting nearly wiped out Chesapeake oysters in the 1980s. And they have never recovered, despite millions spent in restoration. Scientists estimate the Chesapeake now contains about 1 percent of the oysters it once did.

After the oyster industry collapsed, watermen looked to hardy blue crabs to make up the slack. But the next generation may not have another option.

“I want to make a living on the water,” says Randy Plummer, 19, who works on Mr. Kellam’s crab rig. “But there ain’t no future in it. Everybody knows that.” Mr. Plummer is headed to a community college this fall, at the urging of his parents and Mr. Kellam.

Even scientists who called for the harvest reductions say overfishing isn’t entirely to blame.

The main culprit is water pollution and soil runoff from development throughout the watershed, which is home to 10 million people. Excess nutrients wash into the Chesapeake, causing algae blooms and choking the native plant life that crabs rely on for food and habitat. In the summer, large swaths of the Chesapeake contain so little oxygen that scientists call them “dead zones,” because few critters can live there.

Watermen call it “bad water,” and they track it all summer, following crabs as they skitter to shallower water that contains more oxygen. Even when watermen luck out and pull up a pot full of crabs, long-timers say the crabs are nothing like they used to be.

“Sometimes in the summer, you pull the pots up, they’ve got algae and mud all over them,” Mr. Kellam said.

He now spends hours hauling up the same number of crabs he could catch in a few pots a decade ago. Still, wholesalers are buying them, he says.

Maryland and Virginia officials have responded by asking the federal government for a disaster declaration that would free up roughly $20 million to subsidize crabbers and seafood processors until blue crabs rebound.

“It’s certainly getting more difficult to make a living on the water,” conceded Lynn Fegley, a biologist in charge of crabs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But she says the cynicism along the Chesapeake is unfounded because the Chesapeake will have blue crabs as long as watermen lay off them when the stock dips. “What we have to do is find a way to harvest seafood that’s sustainable for the future,” Miss Fegley said.

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