Op-Ed: Science Saved The Day For Crabs, But A Hero’s Battles Are Never Over by Tom Horton

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Dear Governor Hogan,

Please watch the Bay Journal’s recent film, “Beautiful Swimmers Revisited.” It celebrates a great Chesapeake success story, to which you seem dedicated to writing a bad new ending.

The hour-long documentary picks up where William Warner left off in his Pulitzer Prize winning 1976 book about crabs and crabbers, “Beautiful Swimmers.” The film traces the following 40 years of attempts by Maryland and Virginia to manage the Bay’s most iconic seafood, Callinectes sapidus, that most savory beautiful swimmer, the blue crab.

Just a decade ago, our story line would have been an all too familiar downer—fishing pressure was increasing, conservation efforts were mired in politics, natural resources were in decline.

But our movie has a victorious hero. It is not the watermen we show — though Morris Goodwin Marsh and Grant Corbin, who took Willy Warner out in the early 1970s and are still crabbing strong, are marvelous presences in the film. Nor is it Will Wertz, who was 14 in the film and the most endearing would-be waterman you’ll ever see.

The real hero enters about 23 minutes into the film with a frigid winter scene of oilskin-clad biologists, on their hands and knees grubbing through mud and shell that been dredged onto the heaving deck of a research vessel:

Men and women of science . . . trying to make sense of a mysterious world, an age-old quest that stretches from magic to science, from shamans divining the future from the entrails of sacrifices to modern researchers sifting through the Bay’s guts for answers.

The hero’s name is science, governor. In particular, science with an uninspiring name: the Baywide winter dredge survey, which began collecting vital data more than a quarter century ago.

The survey involves randomly sampling more than a thousand sites each winter to see how many crabs, big and small, are overwintering in the mud. As it has matured with decades of data, the survey has become one of the best fishing management tools in the world, allowing us to count with a high degree of accuracy how many crabs are in the Bay.

Counting crabs — or oysters, or rockfish or menhaden — sounds simple, but until you invest the time and money to do it, you cannot manage them sustainably. We never did it with oysters or shad, and neither species has recovered from near-depletion.

Crabs took a turn toward a happier ending in 2008, when growing confidence in the science of the winter survey gave Tim Kaine and Martin O’Malley, governors of Virginia and Maryland, the political will to jointly take conservation measures that brought the blue crab back from the brink — to the brink today of sustainable management that benefits watermen and all of us who love our crab cakes.

The latest winter dredge survey tallied a record-high number of spawning-age female crabs in the Bay this year, validation of the strategy adopted in that crisis — to focus conservation efforts on protecting those in the population that produce the next generation.

Sustainable doesn’t mean the end of ups and downs, of alternating good years and bad years — that’s nature. The overall crab population this year is down some from last year, and juveniles way down. It does mean we no longer have to blame watermen for it.

But governor, you are actively subverting this hard-won victory, ignoring the science at the whim of your watermen political supporters. You are eviscerating our state Department of Natural Resources’ ability to regulate pressure on the Bay’s seafood.

You campaigned on ending what you called the “war on watermen.” You have given them unprecedented influence: removing a number of respected natural resources regulators they don’t like, even though many other watermen had no problem with the ousted regulators.

You have let their concerns about the state’s oyster sanctuaries cost Maryland a million bucks in federal restoration funds that were given to Virginia. With oysters estimated to be down to 1 percent of historic abundance, your administration fought a legislative bill to finally do a scientific survey of them. (It passed anyway.)

You hit bottom this February when you met with a tiny minority of watermen who wanted more crabs no matter what the science said. After that meeting, your people at the DNR summarily fired Brenda Davis, their longtime blue crab manager. She began her career in 1988, about the time the winter dredge survey began. No reason was ever given.

But the message to those charged with sustaining the Bay’s seafood is chilling and clear: If you value your job, don’t even think about following the science if it ticks off a waterman.

We interviewed Davis for our movie. She totally gets that she wields science that affects the livelihoods of watermen. I’ve seldom seen a regulator more willing to go the extra mile to listen to watermen’s concerns; but responsible management of the blue crab in this case was crystal clear: If you give some watermen more crabs by easing a catch regulation, you take crabs away from other watermen. Davis was just the messenger for that, and she got shot. The watermen didn’t even get their extra crabs.

When I show the movie now to groups, I have to tell them how the ending may be changing, how you are foolishly wrecking decades of good science.

Surprisingly, I haven’t been joined much by environmental groups around the Bay. Davis’ main defenders have been other watermen who understand the big picture.

There actually is a war on watermen, Governor Hogan, and it’s in our movie, explained eloquently by watermen. It’s the pollution from farms and stormwater and dirty air. It’s the loss of crab habitat from developing natural shorelines.

Plenty of good targets to shoot at. Let the Bay Journal know if you want a copy of the movie.

Tom Horton has written about the Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Letters to Editor

  1. David Lloyd says:

    A terrific letter to the governor! Hopefully, he will read it and act accordingly! Our future crab delicacies depend on maintaining a sense of how best to protect for the future!

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