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Going Green: Comeback crabs

Ecological improvements aid Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock

By Lisa Duchene
January 05, 2012

For Chef Chad Wells, Chesapeake Bay’s rebounding blue crab population means he’ll serve Maryland crab cakes this month at Alewife, his Baltimore gastro-pub dedicated to craft beer and food that is sustainable, local and seasonal.

In the last decade, the local blue crab supply has been limited. But this year, with Maryland’s harvest back up to historic levels of 60 million pounds, there are enough blue crabs for processors to pasteurize and offer year-round at competitive pricing. Maryland’s blue crab fishery is also in the pre-assessment stage of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.

“They’re doing a lot of good things to protect the fisheries,” says Wells. “It’s the responsibility of chefs to showcase that.”

Still, given that regional demand for crab outstrips the local supply, odds are that the crab in most crab cakes served on Maryland’s Eastern Shore did not come from the Chesapeake, despite the iconic fishery’s illustrious history. In his 1976, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic “Beautiful Swimmers,” William W. Warner writes: “No body of water in the world has been more intensely fished for crabs than the Chesapeake, nor for a longer period, with such successful result.”

But by 1992, blue crabs were in decline. A decade ago, Virginia and Maryland’s harvests had dropped to about 20 million pounds each, sending 10 processors under. The culprits, say scientists, have been heavy fishing and water quality in the bay, which suffers from too much nitrogen and phosphorous draining from its 64,000-square-mile watershed. The nutrient overload spurs algal blooms that rob the water column and fish of oxygen when they die and decompose, creating what are known as “dead zones.”

Thomas Miller, professor of fisheries science at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, credits 2008 management measures that protect female crabs in late autumn in both states and that have banned Virginia’s winter dredge fishery.

The adult female crab abundance has increased by more than 200 percent, notes Miller. “The stock has really recovered rapidly,” he says. “The Virginia harvest [about 30 million pounds] hasn’t fully recovered, but there are signs that it’s beginning to pick up.”

Blue crab is the brightest sign in the Chesapeake. The striped bass (known locally as rockfish) fishery, which is in full MSC assessment, is another, with an annual quota of 1.96 million pounds. Rebounding fisheries are “nature’s pat on the back for all the hard work,” says Steve Vilnit, Maryland’s fisheries marketing director, who has taken 200 chefs on bay tours and in October organized a local seafood promotion that raised $40,000 for oyster restoration efforts.

Also, there are two indicators that the Chesapeake ecosystem is responding to a drop in nutrient pollution levels under way since the 1980s.

“The [freshwater] grasses are back and doing very well, and as a result, they’re helping clean the water,” says Bill Dennison, VP-science applications at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science (CES). Dennison chairs the science, technical and analysis/reporting group of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state partnership dedicated to bay cleanup.

Grasses, freshwater species that thrive in the estuary’s lower-salinity upper areas and seagrass species suited to its higher salinity closer to the bay’s mouth are vital fish nursery grounds. Seagrasses in the Lower Bay continue to struggle, notes Dennison.

Also, the size of mid- to late-summer oxygen-starved dead zones leveled off in the deep channels of the bay in the 1980s and has been declining ever since, according to a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland’s CES, who published their analysis of 60 years of water quality data in the November 2011 issue of Estuaries and Coasts.

“What I see is … progress with our implementation, some actual real-world improvements that are related to nutrient reduction,” says Dennison.

The bad news: Chesapeake oysters, still commercially fished, are about one-third of 1 percent of their historical abundance.

And overall, the bay’s 2010 health earned a C-minus grade, according to EcoCheck, a partnership of the University of Maryland and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 2009, the bay water quality was deemed “extremely poor” and the cleanup effort had met one-quarter of the goals established by the Chesapeake Bay Program. However, a 2010 federal cleanup strategy, spurred by President Obama’s 2009 executive order, declared the bay a national treasure and triggered an unprecedented renewed federal effort to address pollution.

“I’ve actually never seen so much focus on the bay program,” says Dennison.

The May 2010 Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed outlines how the federal government will drive cleanup. Of the bay’s 250 resident and migratory fish species, says the strategy, several hold “tremendous ecological, commercial and cultural value.” These include American and hickory shad, river herring, striped bass, eel, weakfish, bluefish, flounder, oysters and blue crabs.

The strategy calls for restoring native oyster habitat and populations in at least 20 of 35 tributaries (currently there are none), a bay-wide, science-based oyster strategy, establishing sanctuaries and expanding commercial oyster aquaculture. Restoration work is scheduled to begin this year.

The Environmental Protection Agency is looking to cut pollution by setting limits by geographic area, a process known as total maximum daily load, or TMDL. TMDLs are a “rigorous pollution diet for the bay and the region’s waterways,” according to the executive strategy report.

In Pennsylvania, the TMDL process is triggering increased scrutiny and enforcement of the manure management practices of 3,000 small to medium Pennsylvania farmers. In Maryland, the TMDL process has led to major sewage treatment facility upgrades and a record amount of farm acreage planted with cover crops to prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff.

The TMDL process has also triggered a legal challenge. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau last January filed a lawsuit against the EPA, arguing the Clean Water Act does not give EPA authority for the TMDL process.

The situation is discouraging for Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Watermen’s Association. “When you’ve got the Farm Bureau against something, you’ve really got a big fight against you,” says Smith. “All we can do is just sit back and wait.”

Three hundred Virginia watermen don’t have the resources to take on the Farm Bureau, says Smith.

Like the watermen, Chef Wells hopes the Bay’s oyster population will also recover.

“When the oyster population skyrockets, everything gets better in the bay,” says Wells.

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa. 
 January 2012 - SeaFood Business

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