J.M. Clayton workers pick crabs, removing the valued meat. (News21 photo by Jason Lenhart)

Bay Crabs Make Comeback, But Industry Struggles

Jennifer Hlad
News21 Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Md. (Aug. 2, 2010) — Jack Brooks watches as 60 of his employees use short, quick strokes to pick meat from piles of freshly steamed blue crabs. As they place the meat into plastic containers, men steer in wheelbarrows to shovel more crabs onto the long metal tables.

“We try to get everything out of the crab we can,” says Brooks, co-owner of J. M. Clayton Co., a 120-year-old seafood distribution company founded by his great-grandfather.
Just outside this room, in the waters of the Chesapeake, blue crabs appear to be making a comeback, raising hopes that after years of decline, the industry that harvests them may rebound, too.  Annual counts show the bay’s crab population has jumped sharply in the two years since Maryland and Virginia imposed major restrictions on catching females.
But watermen remain unhappy about the restrictions, and the full impact of the restrictions remains to be seen.
Brooks says the increased abundance of crabs hasn't put an end to the challenges facing Maryland’s crab industry, which dropped from 53 licensed distributors in 1995 to about 15 today. Competition from Asian imports, rising pollution, uneven local crab harvests and an ailing economy have all pummeled the industry. 
Sales of premier live crabs –often sold to restaurants – have recently disappointed.  For weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, Clayton had an unsold pile of these No. 1 crabs, the big males known as Jimmies. The company ended up picking them to sell their meat, as it routinely does for smaller crabs.
“We’ve been picking 65 to 70 percent of the No. 1 crabs we’ve been buying,” Brooks says. “We don’t want to
pick any.”
As distributors confront a weak economy that has hurt restaurant sales, watermen have been feeling the impact of the recession as well.  Many remain skeptical that the female crabbing restrictions will accomplish anything--and they disagree with scientists on whether they were necessary in the first place.
While watermen chiefly blame pollution for the decline of the blue crab population, scientists and government officials counter
that overfishing, not pollution, was the main culprit.
"The increase in the crab population was clearly driven by the regulations put in place bay-wide," says Lynn Fegley, assistant director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' fisheries service.
In Maryland and Virginia, natural resources officials want the limits on female crabs to stay largely in place until it’s clear the bounce-back is more than temporary.
“It’s our job to make sure that industry and that resource is at a level that supports [the watermen’s] way of life for the long term,” says John Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
 The Rise of a King
While Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay are synonymous with blue crabs in the minds of many consumers, crab has not always been king.
In the late 1880s, the Chesapeake "really was an oyster fishery," says Tom Miller, a professor at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. "Crabs were caught for local consumption, but there wasn't much [sold] beyond where they were caught."
When disease damaged oyster harvests in the 1950s and '60s, watermen looked elsewhere to make a living, and many turned to striped bass and crabs, says Doug Lipton, a resource economist at the University of Maryland.
The commercial crab harvest reached historic highs in the early 1990s, about the time Maryland and Virginia scientists began counting blue crabs in an annual winter dredge survey.
In 1993, the crab census showed 852 million crabs, and the crab harvest totaled more than 57 million pounds. That same year, Maryland and Virginia crabs comprised 44.5 percent of all the blue crabs caught in the United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
The crab population had ups and downs, often responding to changes in weather, but dropped significantly in the mid-1990s. So did the harvest.
In 2000, the Chesapeake’s crab harvest fell to 22 million pounds, less than half its 1993 level and the lowest point since 1978. Watermen in Louisiana caught more than watermen in Maryland and Virginia combined in 2000, and the Chesapeake crab harvest amounted to just about 28 percent of the U.S. total.
By 2008, the Chesapeake’s crab population was just 283 million, down two-thirds from its 1993 peak.
Scientists considered the level low enough to threaten the industry's long-term survival, which led to crabbing restrictions designed to cut the bay-wide female harvest by a third.
State officials contended they had to act or risk a decline severe enough to trigger harsher measures, such as the 1980s  moratorium that ultimately revived the bay's ailing striped bass, or rockfish.
"Marine biologists tell us any delay would have risked a catastrophic reduction in the crab population," Bull says. "One storm would have wiped out the population to the point where it couldn't be rebuilt without a moratorium."
Wallops from the Recession, Asia
For watermen and seafood distributors, the restrictions on crabbing felt particularly harsh -- coming as they did after a sustained period of decline.
J.M. Clayton Co. weathered the turmoil, but not without casualties. In its heyday, it employed 150 crab pickers. Now, it’s down to about 60.
Imported crabmeat from Asia also impacted the industry, says Brooks, who runs J.M. Clayton Co. with his two brothers.
"You cannot compete with it, dollar for dollar," he says.
Local companies began importing crabmeat from Asia in the mid-1990s. By 2000, hundreds of millions of pounds of crab were coming into the Port of Baltimore annually from the Philippines and Indonesia, Lipton says.
By boosting the region's supply, Asian imports hurt the price of local crabs. But Lipton says the imports also had positive effects, including making crab available year-round, which drove demand for crab meat higher.
While Asian crab is still imported and served in area restaurants, the amount of crab imported is no longer growing, Lipton says.
More recently, the recession has taken its toll, putting a damper on restaurant sales and traffic. Because seafood, especially crab, is mainly eaten outside the home, J.M. Clayton Co. has felt that pinch.
"There's a misconception that there's never enough crabs. But that's incorrect," Brooks says.
Watermen: Restrictions Are to Blame
Watermen, who had already been dealing with the frustrations of unpredictable weather and a sick economy, say the restrictions compounded their pain.
Phillip Todd, 67, of Cambridge, has been working on the water his entire life and remembers when there weren't many crabbing restrictions at all. The season ran from April 1 to the end of November; watermen could catch as many as they wanted, any time of the day or night, any day of the week.
But now, Todd says, “We’ve got restrictions everywhere you look.”
William James, 75, of Cambridge, doesn’t put much faith in the state’s restrictions and doesn’t believe this year’s harvest will be any better than last year’s.
“If DNR gives it out that it’s going to be a good year, it’s a bad year,” James says. “They don’t know anything more about what’s going on than someone sitting in a penthouse.”
Crabbing restrictions range from daily catch limits to periodic closures of the season. Crabbers who use certain types of gear can only fish in specific areas, and no commercial crabbers can harvest on Sundays.
Maryland and Virginia had tried various restrictions over the years, but most were what Bull calls window-dressing.
“They were not aimed at a major, long-term shift in the paradigm of how many crabs can be caught and how many people can be catching them,” he says. “They were mostly treading water to try to stay in place.”
More significant restrictions were imposed on female harvesting two years ago. Though Maryland and Virginia implemented them in different ways, watermen in every part of the bay felt the crunch.
John Ashton, a 37-year-old trotliner from Hoopers Island, saw the impact immediately. Ashton crabs with a trotline, moving back and forth to retrieve crabs from a baited fishing line.
In the mid-‘90s, when times were good, Ashton could catch 40, 50 or 60 bushels of crabs a day, he says.
But in 2008, after the restrictions, he says he was down to five bushels a day. At $25 a bushel, it was barely enough to operate his boat, let alone support his wife and two children.
Waterman Bob Evans of Churchton, Md., says crabbers wanted to put restrictions on female crabs a decade ago, because high catches of those smaller crabs were forcing the price of all crabs down. But the limits weren’t imposed until the crab census showed a major decline, and watermen wound up taking the blame, he says.
“All of a sudden, a half a dozen bad crab seasons [later], and ‘it’s overfishing,’ “ he says of state officials’ reactions. “Well, it’s not overfishing,” Evans says.
“Pollution has a lot to do with it, bad water quality,” he says. Pollution has, among other things, killed underwater grasses, a crab habitat.
Watermen also say crab populations have been hurt by an abundance of striped bass, which eat crabs.
Miller, at the University of Maryland, says that while pollution, grasses and rockfish have an effect on crabs, they don’t tell the whole story.
Grasses are on the rebound, but still are only at 5 percent to 10 percent of historic levels. So if they were really essential to crabs, the population wouldn't have recovered as quickly as it did, he says. And if striped bass were the whole problem, crabs would have been low in other years of their abundance, he says.
“There’s some truth behind it, but it’s not -- in my mind -- a smoking gun,” he says.
Scientists, Officials: Overfishing Was Key
Scientists agree the bay is suffering from major pollution, especially an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, lawn fertilizer, sewage treatment plants and other sources. The nutrients have led to algae blooms that create low-oxygen areas in the bay known as “dead zones,” where aquatic life can’t survive.
But scientists say the evidence doesn't support the contention that pollution is the main culprit behind the crab’s decline.
Unlike oysters or underwater grasses, crabs can typically swim away from the shifting dead zones. If they are caught in a crab pot in a dead zone, though, they will die.
“Sometimes when we come out here and the dead zones hit, the red tides hit, and every pot we pull is full of dead crabs,” Evans says. “We’ve had days we’ve thrown 30 or 40 bushels of dead crabs overboard.”
Many scientists say the evidence strongly points to overfishing as the primary cause for the population decline, noting that crabs rebounded almost immediately after the restrictions were imposed.
Scientists counted nearly twice as many adult crabs during the winter dredge survey in early 2009 as in early 2008.
And this year’s survey showed increases in baby crabs as well as adults, suggesting the larger number of females from the year before were able to produce more babies. The total number of blue crabs in the bay in early 2010 was at its highest level since 1997.
Eric Johnson, a fisheries ecologist at the Smithsonian Marine Science Institute, says it’s hard to tell whether harvest restrictions, environmental conditions or a combination of both contributed to the rebound –  especially because other species also saw big increases in the number of juveniles this year.
“The story’s not quite written,” he says.
But in announcing the crab survey results, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell credited the recent harvest restrictions with spurring the population spike.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, called the population jump “solid proof that science-based management matters.”
While both Maryland and Virginia want the majority of the restrictions to stay in place, Maryland officials say they will temporarily lift one -- a ban on harvesting female crabs between Sept. 26 to Oct. 4.
DNR officials believe small adjustments can be made to the limits “while still maintaining safe harvest levels,” says Communications Director Darlene Pisani.
Bringing Back the Crab, and the Bay
Scientists say rebuilding the crab population is important for many reasons besides commerce.
Crabs aerate the sediment through digging, may help keep certain invasive species at bay, and add much to the region’s culture, Johnson says.
“If we can screw up the crab, it’s … a sorry state of affairs,” he says. Rebuilding the population “is sort of symbolic of trying to bring back the bay as a whole.”
The crab population looks good to Johnson, at least for now.
"We're still in a period where we're cautiously optimistic," he says.
Evans agrees.
Though restrictions and other pressures make it difficult to stay in the industry, Evans believes watermen will keep finding ways to stay afloat.
“We survived the rockfish moratorium and the years there weren’t any crabs, the years there weren’t any fish, and we’ll keep surviving,” he says.
Brooks is even more optimistic, noting that Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are sweeter and more flavorful than imported crabs because they store up fat when they hibernate in the winter.

“We’ve got a unique product,” Brooks says. “We feel good about continuing on.”