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Old 07-16-2008
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Chesapeake watermen fear blue crab not coming back

Chesapeake watermen fear blue crab not coming back

By KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press Writer
Wed Jul 16, 1:40 PM ET



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 nation's largest estuary. Now blue crabs are in trouble, too, and when they go, a way of life is sure to 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 Kellam, 53, steering his 30-year-old rig "Christy" out of the Potomac River and onto the bay for a day of crabbing. The contradictory decor in the cabin sums up the outlook of today's waterman: a red wooden good-luck horseshoe dangles over a mud-splattered copy of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook."

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

For 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southern Maryland, where the working rigs and crab picking houses that sustained these communities for generations have been replaced by yachts and vacation homes, hopes are dim that the blue crabs will ever come back.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. "I don't know what the solution could be."

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 Washington 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 dropping up to $200 on a bushel of crabs.

"People don't have the disposable income. They're just not buying," says 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 over-harvesting nearly wiped out Chesapeake oysters in the 1980s, and despite millions invested in restoration, they've never recovered. 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, a chain-smoking 19-year-old who works on Kellam's crab rig. "But there ain't no future in it. Everybody knows that."

Plummer has wanted to crab since he was a boy, but is instead headed to community college this fall, at the urging of Kellam and his parents.

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 a watershed that 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. The bad water comes in and coats everything and the crabs can't stand it," Kellam explains.

He now spends hours hauling up the same number of crabs he could catch in a few pots a decade ago. And what he catches isn't as healthy-looking as the crabs he caught as a boy. Wholesalers are buying them anyway.

"They're buying a lot of stuff that 10 years ago they would've turned away," Kellam says.

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

Maryland is also working on sweeping revisions to state planning laws with an eye toward protecting its 3,000 or so miles of shoreline. Already this year, the state toughened zoning laws dealing with development closest to the water, a law that aims to reduce sediment and pollution running into the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

"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 Fegley says the cynicism along the Chesapeake is unfounded. There will always be Chesapeake blue crabs, she says ó as long as watermen lay off them when the stock dips.

"As the watershed gets more crowded, the face of the fishery may change. But people are always going to want seafood, right? It's healthy and it's delicious. What we have to do is find a way to harvest seafood that's sustainable for the future," Fegley says.

But Thomas Courtney, who sells Kellam the alewife fish he uses for bait, laughs when asked whether state efforts to revive blue crabs will bring them back.

"It ain't what we're pulling out of the water. It's what we're putting in the water," says Courtney, 62. "You've got a cornfield, 20 acres, you put 80 or 90 houses on it, hook 'em up to sewer pipes, put roads and ditches down. That's what's destroyed the bay. It ain't us. They let development take over and then, that's it, we're done."
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Old 07-16-2008
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Free...I am with you on this one. We were mislead by bad computer models on how much progress was being made cleaning up the bay and now we know that phosphate and nitrogen levels remain the same as back in the 80's.
This represents some real progress on a per capita basis but the population is swelling and the crabs don't see much progress! We really do need tougher run-off laws for farms and much improved muni sewer systems all around the bay if this situation is to really turn around. The Chessie is a treasure and the life is very slowly getting sucked out of her.
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Quote:
The Chessie is a treasure and the life is very slowly getting sucked out of her.
It truely is and it is a shame.
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Old 07-17-2008
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Does anyone remember the Keypone (MSP) that was dumped into the James River by Hooker Chemical, I think that was the name. That did the spat in on for the bay oysters. The folks around Guinea Neck around Gloucester Point are good hard working. I have had many friends, watermen, in that area over the years that have sold or given up their deadrise and moved into Newport News for jobs, other than shipping building. So as the blue crab and oysters go so does the bay. It sad and tragic.
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Old 07-17-2008
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A very sad state of affairs indeed and the collective 'we' are to blame.
Once they harvested/polluted all the oysters people should have recognized that we were doing great damage to that estuary. 100 years ago the waters in the Chessie were reported to be entirely clear even though there are many, many rivers flowing into it. So what do the beings with the big brains do? They move on to harvesting the crabs. This collapse in crab populations is no surprise as anyone who has been out on these waters can tell you there are WAY TOO MANY crab pots out.
20+ years ago I went sailing with a buddy of mine at the mouth of the Rappahannock (Windmill & Stingray points) and I witnessed the Menhaden fishing boats scooping up these large anchovies with the help of a small airplane that was used as a spotter. Do they even have Menhaden anymore?
Pretty soon they will start marketing sea weed as the 'new' seafood which the Japanese seem to eat in quantity.
Clearly, overfishing AND pollution are playing a role as is stupidity.
It is a shame and very sad.
Up here on the LI Sound there are no more lobster in the western sound. Their decline is due to the same reasons they worry about the blue crab and lack of oysters in the Chessie. One day the Bluefish will be considered a delicacy.
I do not think that any of these 'fishery managers' can legislate limits that will approach anything close to 'sustainable limits'.
I have no answer or solution. I think that it is going to be a really tough time for people trying to make a living by harvesting our waters wherever they be.
Could we eliminate 'commercial fishing' altogether? If you wanted fish or clams you would have to dig them up or catch them yourself? That is how it was at one point in human history. I doubt it.
Economics trumps ecological issues everywhere.
Sleep well tonight.
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But they (goverment) just approved 400 million over 5 years for the bay. They will save us again! well its a start. After they hire people and put gas in the cars, wont be any left for the crab.
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Uh...the Kepone thing was really bad and a real danger to human life as well but ws largely confined to the upper James around Hopewell which is still not a place to eat anything you pull out of the water! This had little to do with the demise of the Bay oysters which were killed off by the parasitic diseases Dermo and MSX which have nothing to do with pollution. The crabs, the fish, the algae blooms ARE pollution related. I think that to really let the crabs come back you'd have to ban commercial harvests for 2-3 years...but you have to couple that with pollution controls and subsidies for the crabbers/families put out of work for the whole thing to be workable. With several states and the feds and the various interest groups it is tough to get anything meaningful done other than telling boaters to lock their head valves.
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Flame me if you want, obviously I'm uninformed about the Chesapeake and not in favor of environmental degradation anywhere, but:

Louisiana oysters are really good. Have a dozen, with some Tabasco, and a Dixie beer, and you may agree.
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Yes Tom,
NOLA has some great oysters. Been there and done that about 20 years ago. This year they are forecasting a larger than ever 'dead zone' in the Gulf caused by the Mississippi draining right into it. Too many farms getting flooded in Iowa, Nebraska and mid-west. Enjoy them oysters until your gastric tract can't handle all the farm runoff that kills all the critters you love to eat.
Crab cakes are also popular down in the big EZ if I am not mistaken. What happens when the next 'Katrina' floods all the bayous and merges sewage with diesel fuel again? We will be living in a country a lot like China.
L'aissez les bon temps roulez. 'Let the good times roll' for those of you too 'Merican to comprende.
Yes, lets start oil drilling exploration all along our coastal waters as Mr. Bush suggests, if you like. I just love that he overturned his own fathers ban on oil drilling along the rest of our coast line.
Enjoy yourself, its later than you think.
Live and learn.
Over and out.
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Aack. Those oysters won't taste as good now. Kind of like watching "CSI" during dinner. I'm in your debt.

Actually, crab cakes aren't anything here. But big back in Charm City.

So thanks,

Out.
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