I'd like to impose a moratorium on anti-regulatory rhetoric about the Chesapeake Bay. Enough with the claim that the heavy hand of government is breaking the back of the little guy. State regulation has proven enormously successful in helping to bring back two of the Bay's iconic species: blue crabs and rockfish. And this, in turn, is helping the same watermen who fought so bitterly against the regulation in the first place.
The big news this morning was that blue crab populations, as determined by a scientific survey, were 60 percent higher this winter than last winter. Why? The governors of Maryland and Virginia went out on a limb, endured a boatload of criticism, and imposed tough restrictions on catching female crabs in 2008. The 60 percent jump this winter followed a 43 percent rise in 2009, compared to 2008.
All told, there were an estimated 658 million blue crabs in the Bay this winter – the highest figure in 17 years, according to an announcement that Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley made this morning at the waterfront on Kent Island.
And remember: the reason O’Malley and former Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine imposed the restrictions in 2008 was because crab populations back then were among the lowest ever recorded. A downward spiral has turned into an upward spike.
To be fair, it should be noted that blue crab populations are erratic. High crab populations in 1993 and 1997 were followed by sharp declines. So it’s far too early to conclude that the blue crabs are out of the woods. And we still have not seen enough to say that the limits on catching females should be dropped.
In an encouraging show of wisdom from Virginia’s new chief executive, Governor Bob McDonnell announced this morning that he has no intention of dropping the restrictions. “Two years does not make a trend,” McDonnell said. “The scientific evidence shows our management measures are working but we need to continue along this path in order to ensure the Bay's crab population returns to robustness and remains at that level.”
And get this intriguing fact:
Despite the new restrictions, watermen last year were able to harvest more than 53 million pounds of crabs. That was more than in seven of the last 10 years. That robust harvest shows that smart regulation of fisheries does not mean that watermen will catch less and earn less. In fact, it means the opposite.
The same could be seen in the dramatic rebound of rockfish in the 1990s after the state and federal governments imposed a moratorium on catching these fish in the 1980s.
Looking forward to the future, a parallel can be seen in oysters. Oyster harvests have plummeted to less than 1 percent of their historic highs. Right now, Governor O’Malley is proposing to create no-harvesting sanctuaries protecting 9,000 acres of remaining oyster reefs. But his plan is meeting fierce resistance, from not only watermen but some Eastern Shore lawmakers.
The claim, once again, is that the state will put watermen out of business by restricting their catch. But the numbers unveiled this morning seriously undermines that argument. History shows that it is not strong government management of fisheries that bankrupts watermen. It’s laissez faire politics.
By Tom Pelton
Photo from Chesapeake Bay Program