How bad has this season been for local crabbers?
Long-time “waterman” Denni Jenkins pulled his crab traps, or pots, out of the James River for the season last week. It was costing him more to gas his boat than he was fetching with his catch.
“It’s getting worse all the time,” Jenkins says.
To people who work in the industry, the decline is more than a decade old. But it’s gotten to the point where Chesapeake Bay has, for all intents and purposes, lost its claim as crab cake capital.
Local seafood distributor Icelandic USA, Inc. handles very little crab. Executive vice-president Dan Murphy says it’s not worth it for the company because there’s just not enough of it available. What’s worse, for local crabbers, the few crab cakes that Icelandic does sell come from Thailand.
“The perception is this area is the home of the crab cake. The reality is, most of the crab cakes are not from this area,” Murphy says. “Most of them are from Indonesia, Thailand, China, the areas where there’s just more supply.”
Part of the problem is there are simply fewer crabs in the James and York Rivers, and Chesapeake Bay.
Dr. Rom Lipcius of the Virginia Institutes of Marine Science says the winter dredge survey that VIMS does with the Maryland Department of Natural Resouces shows the population of blue crabs in the Bay is down 70 to 80 per cent since the bountiful catches of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In fact, the boatloads of crab being harvested masked what emerged as an ongoing crisis for the Bay.
“In 1991, ’92 and ’93, we saw a very low influx of young crabs into the Bay,” Lipcius says, a fact marine biologists say could have been caused by changes in Atlantic Ocean currents.
“All this fishing gear was in the water (from the boom years still occurring), but now all of a sudden, we have fewer crabs coming in.”
As crabbers harvested a larger and larger percentage of the crabs each season, there were fewer and fewer breeding crabs “leading to the downward spiral we saw” in populations, Lipcius says.
Now, even with far stricter control on the crabbers’ activities, the populations haven’t rebounded. Worse, the influx of foreign crabs, often raised in huge aquaculture farms in Asia, has depressed the price that watermen get when they DO catch crabs.
The U.S. Secretary of Commerce has called the blue crab population decline a “commercial fishery disaster.” Watermen could be eligible for financial compensation, but details are still being worked out.
The states of Virginia and Maryland have pushed for a $20-million compensation package, which could be used to pay crabbers to do other work, and help with habitat recovery.
Lipcius says an ecosystem-based recovery is what’s needed, not just more fishing limits. He says the planting of seagrass beds, and release of more juvenile crabs into them, is showing encouraging signs in increased number of crab offspring.
“We need to approach this whole process much more holistically,” Lipcius says.
In the meantime, waterman Jenkins says he’s going broke.
“They won’t let you get a catch. And we’re getting no price when we do catch ’em,” he says.