The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Blue Crab
The blue crab is the creature perhaps most associated with the Chesapeake Bay. It’s everywhere, from menus to signs to waterways to, in the end, our plates. Its life in the bay has been anything but easy, but thanks to the efforts of many people and organizations, the blue crab’s future seems brighter than it once did. Summer visitors to the area spend much of their time on the water – a yacht charter from Annapolis Bay is a spectacular way to explore this area – and the health the bay and its flora and fauna contributes to those delightful summers.
Blue crabs play an important role in the life cycles of the bay: as larvae, they are consumed by filter feeders; as juveniles and young adults, they are eaten by fish, birds, and other crabs; and as adults, they in turn feed on many residents and plants of the Chesapeake. They are, of course, one of the most popular and classic foods of the area and are heavily fished.
In the late 1990s, many factors combined to cause a decline in the blue crab population that some feared would spell the end of the commercial and recreational fishery. This harvest is part of the bedrock for the bay’s economy, and its end would have been disastrous.
We cannot point to a single source of the start of the decline, but overfishing and polluted waters definitely played their roles. Underwater grasses are an important part of the blue crab habitat. These grasses serve to protect the juvenile crabs from predators – grass beds are particularly good places to hide from birds – so that more of them can survive to adulthood or at least long enough to reproduce.
Dense grass beds protect larger numbers of the crabs. The grasses have proved susceptible to the warming of the waters in the region, and have suffered from pollution and runoff into the bay. Research shows that the thinning of the grasses has contributed to the decline in the blue crab population. And as the signature fishery in the Chesapeake, the blue crab has also suffered from harvest pressure, ie having too many adults harvested, leaving the population unable to replace its numbers at an adequate rate.
When the decline in the numbers became too great to ignore, federal and state agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations and universities, stepped in to study the problem from all angles and find solutions. The result is that, while the blue crab population hasn’t exactly come roaring back, it is on much better footing than it was 10 years ago.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has created a network among commercial and recreational harvesters to set catch numbers and help monitor the population. In 2014 partners within this network signed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which covers an array of bay species and water quality. The sustainable fisheries portion of the agreement has broad support. Although the bay is hardly pristine, it is a living example of the good that can be done when local stakeholders come together, realizing that a healthy ecosystem will have benefits in the long term that outweigh short-term gains.
Before setting out to sail the Chesapeake, visitors should check the website for the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is located in Annapolis, Maryland, to learn about the bay’s ecology and restoration. The site has field guides and loads of information about plants, animals, and waterways.