Commentary: Drums of a blue crab war?

The legendary disputes over Chesapeake Bay natural resources involving Maryland and Virginia watermen have been called wars for good reason.

Both states have not always cooperated to protect the great estuary's natural resources, which include striped bass, shad and blue crabs.

In April 2008, when Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine pledged to halt the iconic blue crab's precipitous decline through imposition of a 34 percent harvest reduction, that promise was heartening. However, recent preliminary estimates indicate that Virginia crabbers had decreased their catch by 37 percent but Maryland crabbers may have not reduced their harvest at all. This now threaten their cooperative effort.

Gov. O'Malley should promptly address the situation, lest it deteriorate and provoke open crab warfare.

Since the 1990s, public officials, scientists, watermen, environmentalists and others have expressed growing concerns about the blue crab and have urged greater protection of the feisty crustacean.

In 1994, Virginia adopted a 22-mechanism management plan to enhance bay-wide stock, but a lack of cooperation between Maryland and Virginia and their insufficiently rigorous actions permitted the crab's situation to decline.

In 2007, these developments led Virginia to convene experts, who studied the crustacean and issued a January 2008 report. They found no evidence that the 22-measure plan increased "bay-wide stock abundance or harvests," ascertained that overfishing, predators, submerged aquatic vegetation losses as well as pollution from development, industry, wastewater treatment and agriculture endangered the crab and offered protective recommendations, namely drastic harvest limits.

In spring 2008, Virginia responded by placing numerous restrictions on the crab harvest, such as ending the century-old winter dredge season. Maryland acted less quickly and fully by issuing April proposals, on the season's eve, and later final controls, which imposed phased reductions on the female harvest in September and October and closed the season on October 23.

In April, Governors O'Malley and Kaine vowed to revive the species with one third harvest decreases. By May, each asked that the U.S. Commerce Department declare the crustacean a federal disaster to generate resources for sustaining crabbers, and in autumn the Department granted this request. That cooperation is unusual because the jurisdictions have not always coordinated their efforts, while the states' agencies and rules differ and watermen rely on divergent techniques and have conflicting interests, which Maryland females' paucity helps explain.

Maryland and Virginia crabbers have long opposed regulation and distrusted the other state's watermen and regulators. Many also vigorously resisted the new controls, but the vast majority of watermen in both jurisdictions appeared to comply with the mandates. Although the restrictions had the greatest adverse impacts on the 55 Virginia crabbers who could no longer dredge, the effects on others from both states seemed more diffused and difficult to ascertain.

The limitations' impact on the crustacean also remains unclear. Early Virginia projections indicated that the harvest declined by 37 percent, so the Commonwealth apparently eclipsed its goal. However, preliminary Maryland estimates found that crabbers may have landed numbers similar to 2007 figures, thus missing the target. Officials in both states have cautioned that final determinations cannot be reached until the survey results are tabulated later this year.

Last year, Maryland and Virginia admirably coordinated their efforts to prevent additional decline of the venerable blue crab by reducing harvests one third. Virginia seemed to attain that objective, but Maryland has apparently not secured the goal.

For now, it seems best to await the final survey results. However, Maryland should prepare for the inevitable backlash from Virginia and its crabbers, if the harvest numbers remain similar. Should the statistics not change, the obvious inequities could reignite the bay's natural resources wars of old and it could turn ugly.


Carl Tobias is the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law

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