Dispatch from Maryland: This Drought is Making Me Crabby

As anyone from Maryland will tell you, Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs are the best crabs in the world. If you're from Maryland, or if you've ever lived in Maryland, or even if you've only visited, you've probably been to a crab feast (or crab “pick” if you're from Virginia) so you know what I'm talking about. On a hot summer day, there really is nothing like sitting down to a table covered with a bushel of Callinectes sapidus, (Latin for'beautiful savory swimmer'), steamed to perfection and covered in Old Bay seasoning, along with some sweet Maryland corn on the cob and the ice cold beverage of your choice.

I was lucky enough to indulge in this summer rite of passage recently while visiting my family, who live a stone’s throw from the Chesapeake Bay. As we sat picking the sweet backfin meat from our bushel of male crabs we talked about the health of the Bay, its crab population and the impact of one of the worst droughts in decades on the Bay’s most valuable fishery. The crabs tasted saltier than usual, probably because the drought has reduced the amount of freshwater reaching the Bay.

Thankfully, it otherwise seems the crabs are in pretty good shape this year. In April, Governor Martin O'Malley announced that the blue crab population was at its highest level since 1993 and a NOAA assessment found the juvenile population is the highest ever recorded. This is good news, not only for the crabs, but also for the restaurants and fishermen who have built not only an industry, but a way of life around the tasty crustaceans. Between 1998 and 2006, almost 4,500 crab-related jobs were lost in Maryland and Virginia and the region suffered $640 million in economic losses, prompting the federal government to declare the fishery a disaster. In 2008, scientists declared that the crabs were being overfished. After heated debates and an arduous regulatory process, Maryland and Virginia took steps to protect the crab population.

Maryland now has a management system designed “to adapt and ensure that annual crab harvests stay balanced with annual shifts in abundance.” The state has curbed the female harvest by shortening the season and enacting bushel limits based on previous catches. In Virginia, the winter dredge, which allowed crabbers to catch females as they hibernated, was eliminated.

To determine population numbers, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science do an annual winter dredge survey of the juvenile, mature female and adult male crabs at 1,500 locations throughout the Bay. The survey is done in the winter, when the crabs are burrowed into the mud, because that is when researchers can get the most accurate population counts. The folks who determine what is considered a sustainable crab population–the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC)–determined that overfishing happens when more than 34 percent of the females are caught. Previously, that determination was based on the percentage of males and females combined, where overfishing happened when more than 46 percent were harvested. Previous harvests were as high as 79 percent. Apparently I'm not the only one who likes blue crabs.

Unfortunately, at the same time the crab population was getting a good review, the Chesapeake Bay was receiving a D+ in its annual report card. Several events in 2011 caused the Bay to receive its second-to-worst grade since evaluations started in 1986 :

  • Heavy spring rains caused a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous to wash into the Bay, decreasing light levels and causing aquatic grasses to die off;
  • A hot, dry summer promoted more chlorophyll in fresher, surface waters and low dissolved oxygen in saltier, lower waters;
  • Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused Bay waters to mix, and also dumped a lot of sediment and freshwater into the Bay.

These events conspired to create the perfect dead zone  G. These form when algae, soaking up the summer rays, feed off nutrients, and then as they die off, are eaten by microbes that use up the oxygen aquatic flora and fauna depend on for survival. Many of the rivers feeding the Bay also scored fairly low; the Patuxent River (which flows close to my parents' place) even received an F for its poor water quality.

There are multistate restoration efforts going on to help improve the Bay that cover everything from agriculture and air pollution to wastewater and wetlands. Recovery is slow but the improved crab population is evidence that, little by little, the Bay is improving. Fortunately, this year’s drought has had little impact on crab numbers and has actually helped improve Bay water quality by helping to reduce the dead zone – at least until the rains start again in full force.

Recovery of the crab population means a lot to Marylanders. The state has even instituted the ‘True Blue' certification program that allows restaurants to promote the fact that they're serving real Maryland Blue Crabs. Maybe it’s snobbery. Maybe it’s just good to know what you're eating and whether you're getting what you're paying for. After all, any Marylander worth their weight in Old Bay seasoning knows the difference between a real Maryland crab cake and one made with some other kind of crab meat. No brag, just fact!