Gone fishin’: Blue crabs are in short supply, the question is why

Chris Casey of Bristol, Vermont, soon to be a resident of Montana, caught a striped bass during an early morning fishing trip Friday with his brother, Ned Casey, of Edgartown. — By Ned Casey

I love to catch blue crabs. It is great fun. They are also delicious to eat, once you master the art of peeling open a crab to get at its sweet meat.

Several years ago, male crabs, known as jimmies, were easily found in many of the Island ponds. An afternoon of wading with a net was a sure way to harvest a limit of 25 crabs, more than enough for a feast. Last year and the year before that, it was tough to find big crabs.

Female crabs, identified by their red-tipped claws, were more plentiful. State regulations require that female egg-bearing crabs be thrown back. Common sense dictates that all females be released.

From what I hear from other crabbers, we are in for another difficult year. Edgartown and Tisbury Great Ponds do not appear to have many blue crabs. The scarcity may be related to our cold winter and an extended period of ice over of our ponds. Or it could be another indicator of declining water quality. There has been little study, as far as I know, of the blue claw in our ponds.

The Chesapeake Bay, the wellspring of blue crabs and the culture that surrounds these “Beautiful swimmers” is in trouble, according to Angus Phillips, who wrote an interesting opinion piece published July 25 in The Washington Post (“The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab needs our help now, or never”).

Two years ago, a crab fisherman could pretty much bank on gathering a bushel within a few hours of leaving the dock, Mr. Phillips said.

“That was the norm, from June to September, as it had been for the decade or more since I took up crabbing and for a century before that,” he said. “Sometimes it was more than a bushel, sometimes less, but always there was a proper mess for supper if you took the trouble to go out.”

Last year, he said, the bottom fell out. Crabbers were not seeing small crabs or females and wondered what 2014 would bring.

“The answer is now in hand: Nothing. No crabs. The last signature species of the Chesapeake to withstand the pressures of overexploitation and declining habitat has all but disappeared from the waters around Annapolis, which locals still affectionately call Crabtown. Reports from elsewhere are no better. Like oysters, shad, herring, rockfish [striped bass] and yellow perch,crabs have vanished.”

Mr. Phillips argues that the time has come to shut down the crab fishery for a few years and give “the delectable crustaceans a chance to recover the way geese, yellow perch and rockfish did … The life cycle is short and their reproductive capacity so vigorous that we could have abundances back within a year or two, if we just leave them alone.”

Mr. Phillips called for immediate action.

“We have all watched critical Chesapeake resources dwindle to nothing, victims of declining habitat and ever more efficient methods of exploitation. At some point, these resources either go away or somebody puts up a hand and says: Stop! With blue crabs, that time is now — or never.”

The comments his opinion piece generated echo similar battles. Name your fishery. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of finger pointing. The commercial fishermen blame the recreational fishermen, the recreational fishermen blame the commercial fishermen, and both sides blame decreased water quality. Meanwhile, regulatory action lags.

A commentor identified as Southeast Creek said, “As a business person who has been in the crab business for 18+ years, I find your take on the situation ridiculously recreational. How about we place a ban on the hundreds of thousands of recreational crabbers who habitually catch more than their allotted 1 bushel limit? Happens over here on the Eastern Shore all the time.”

I saw one post under another report on the shortage of crabs in which the writer suggested the problem was an abundance of rockfish eating small crabs. He recommended an increase in the harvest of striped bass — now that is solid thinking.

I spoke by telephone last week with Chris Moore, Virginia senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group working to protect this vitally important natural system. I was curious why commercial crabbers are allowed to take females and I wondered if there was a link between the decline in the Chesapeake and the Vineyard.

Chris said that surveys have shown a significant drop in the crab population in Maryland and Virginia for the past three years. Coastwide the numbers are down as well, he said.

“And that’s not necessarily surprising,” he said. “There are good years for reproduction and poor years for reproduction. The crabs here in Chesapeake Bay, once they spawn go 50 miles out in the ocean and migrate back in. So there could be something going on with the ocean temperatures or currents the last three years that have lowered the success of spawning activity.”

Chris said there are known factors, including water quality and interrelated loss of eel grass. “We have eelgrass losses in Chesapeake Bay that are very prominent and that’s one of the best habitats for blue crabs. So as young blue crabs migrate back into Chesapeake Bay they don’t have that type of habitat to go hide in like they should.”

I noted that a similar loss of eelgrass in Martha’s Vineyard waters figures large in the health of the our once abundant bay scallop population.

Chris said he did not think the Chesapeake blue crab decline would necessarily impact the Vineyard. Crab populations are typically geographically localized, he said, and tied to estuary systems. They are not a species like striped bass, he said, that migrates long distances.

The males prefer less salinity. The females tend to congregate nearer the ocean.

It is entirely possible that we have a small but sustaining population.

Shellfish get most of the attention on the Vineyard. Blue crabs add another reason to work to sustain the health of our ponds.

Like to eat crab? Hold back on the fertilizer. Green grass is not even good for salad.

Striped bass revisions coming

Last week, I received a press release from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Guess what? The scientists have come to the conclusion that most Island fishermen have already reached. Striped bass stocks are declining. According to ASMFC assessments, overfishing is not occurring yet but could in the future. Gee, how about that.

The history of fisheries management is pretty much the history of closing the barn door after the horses are out. Let’s hope it is not too late

This is what the ASMFC said about its new proposal, known as Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass: “The Draft Addendum responds to results of the 2013 Atlantic striped bass benchmark assessment indicating F (fishing mortality) in 2012 was above the proposed F target, and female spawning stock biomass (SSB) has been steadily declining below the target since 2006. This means even though the stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring, SSB is approaching its overfished threshold and stock projections show SSB will likely fall below the threshold in the coming years. In addition, a similar decline has been observed in total harvest.  In response to these factors, the Draft Addendum proposes management options to reduce fishing mortality to the target level.

“The Draft Addendum includes a suite of management options to reduce recreational and commercial harvest along the coast and in the Chesapeake Bay under three reduction timeframes. The timeframes include (1) reducing F to its target in one year with a 25 percent reduction in 2013 harvest in 2015 (2) reducing F to its target within three years with a 17 percent reduction in 2013 harvest in 2015, and (3) reducing F to its target within three years with a 7 percent sequential reduction in harvest for three consecutive years starting in 2015.  Specific options to be considered include bag, size, slot and trophy size limits for the recreational fishery and quota reductions for the commercial fishery.”

More later.