This Week in the Watershed

Crab-jay-fleming
Underwater grasses, which depend on clean water, are key to the survival of the blue crab. Photo by Jay Fleming.

Without a doubt, one of the most beloved critters in the Chesapeake Bay is the blue crab. A summer staple of dinner plates, the blue crab is not only ingrained in Bay cuisine, but also in the Bay's culture, history, and economy. Considering the importance of this cantankerous critter, it has always been troubling that its population is notoriously unpredictable. Many factors impact its population in a cycle that can often be boom or bust. In efforts to improve blue crab numbers, harvest restrictions are often considered as one of the most important steps to take. While harvest restrictions are vital, particularly on females, there might be an even more important factorclean water.

Pardon the nautical pun, but clean water is "the rising tide that lifts all boats." For blue crabs, underwater grasses are critical to their survival. Blue crabs are most vulnerable when they are shedding their shell, and underwater grasses provide the cover they need to survive. However, underwater grasses are few and far between when pollution, largely from excess nitrogen and phosphorus, blocks the sunlight that grasses need to grow. Clean water not only helps blue crabs, but all flora and fauna living in and on the Bay. Not to mention, humanity benefits from clean water as well, with expanded recreational opportunities, improved public health, and massive economic benefits.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is the key to moving clean water efforts forward in the Bay. And a clean Bay, full of healthy, swimming blue crabs, is a legacy worth leaving to future generations. To learn more about all things blue crabs, tune into the most recent CBF podcast!

This Week in the Watershed: Burgeoning Blue Crabs, A City Showdown, and An Island Predicament

  • Maryland Governor Larry Hogan focused attention on the sediment buildup behind the Conowingo Dam, calling for new ideas to address the pollution problem. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • A public hearing on the coal ash ponds at the Chesterfield Power Station drew a large contingent of speakers imploring state regulators to impose stricter environmental requirements on Dominion Virginia Power. (Richmond Times-Dispatch—VA)
  • Animal rights groups are calling attention to the unethical hunting of cownose rays in the Chesapeake Bay. (York Dispatch—PA)
  • Improved water quality and underwater grasses have helped produce more—and bigger—crabs this season. (Bay Journal)
  • The successful renovations at the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant are a high note amidst a national crisis of failing infrastructure. (Center for Progressive Reform Blog)
  • Virginia's Tangier Island faces an uncertain future. (New York Times Magazine)
  • Lawrence County in western Pennsylvania became the latest county to adopt a Clean Water Counts resolution, becoming the 27th county in Pennsylvania to ask state officials to make clean water a priority. (New Castle News—PA) Bonus: CBF Press Release
  • The cities of Boston and Baltimore have seen vastly different outcomes of local water cleanup efforts. (Baltimore Brew—MD)
  • Pennsylvania farms might face new federal inspections in light of the state not being on track to meet its 2025 pollution-reduction targets. (Lancaster Intelligencer Journal—PA)

What's Happening around the Watershed?

July 15, 22, 29

  • Shady Side, MD: Break a sweat and help Save the Bay—join CBF in cleaning the "homes" of the next generation of Chesapeake Bay oysters! Help restore the Chesapeake's native oyster population by cleaning oyster shells. We'll be shaking off the dirt and debris on shells so baby oysters can successfully grow on them. This "shell shaking" event is a bit of a workout but a fun, hands-on experience. With lifting involved, it is not recommended for individuals with bad backs or other health concerns. A tour of our restoration center will follow the shell shaking. Click here to register!

July 22

  • Virginia Beach, VA: Join CBF for an early morning outdoors! We are looking for volunteers to help with a variety of property maintenance at the Brock Center and Pleasure House Point. We can use your help anytime from 7:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m. Activities will include cutting back phragmites around the site, removing Japanese sedge, and checking in on Libby's Garden and the rain gardens. If you are interested, please send us an email at rsvp@cbf.org or call 757-622-1964. Please share with us your name, home or cell number, and your email address so we can stay in touch in case of any changes. Also please let us know if you can come out for an hour or all three hours.

July 26

  • Annapolis, MD: Wondering how your favorite Bay critters are doing? Join CBF Fisheries Director Bill Goldsborough to learn the latest about what's happening underwater beneath your boat, kayak, or paddleboard! Our summer "Save the Bay" Breakfast features an ecology crash-course and updates on the health of three of the Chesapeake Bay's most iconic fishery species: oysters, striped bass, and blue crabs—plus a menhaden bonus! Come enjoy a delicious Boatyard breakfast and learn things you never knew about some of the Bay's most important—and tasty—inhabitants. Click here to register!

July 30

  • Norfolk, VA: Come on out for the 19th Annual Paddle for the Bay! Paddlers with kayaks to paddle boarders and all others in between, join in this Mid-Atlantic Paddlers Association certified competition to raise funds for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Click here to register!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


This Week in the Watershed

Blue-crab-1200
Lovers of blue crab raised their hands (or claws) in triumph this week, after receiving the good news that a survey found Maryland's blue crab population has increased 35 percent. Photo by Brian Brown.

If the fight to save the Bay were a baseball season, there would be both victories and losses, with swings of momentum in every direction. These swings were witnessed in Maryland's General Assembly, presenting both successes and disappointments for clean water advocates over the 90-day session. Bad news first: the Poultry Litter Management Act (PLMA), a measure to hold large poultry integrators responsible for excess poultry manure, didn't get beyond committee hearings this year. Silver lining: the hearings for the PLMA started the conversation, and our fight to reduce phosphorus pollution in the Bay and Eastern Shore waterways is far from over.

Time for some good news: the Sustainable Oyster Harvest Act passed, which will provide critical pieces of scientific data still needed to help inform management of Maryland's public oyster fishery. Other good news: the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act has been signed into law, making Maryland one of the nation's leaders in greenhouse gas reduction; a budget passed favorable to many environmental agencies and programs that play key roles in Chesapeake Bay restoration, and several bad bills that would have endangered water quality were defeated. Learn more about the 2016 Maryland General Assembly.

In addition to the Annapolis happenings, there was more good and bad news from the watershed this week. Again, bad news first: we have known for some time the Susquehanna River is sick. The environmental group American Rivers agrees, declaring this week that the Susquehanna is the third most endangered river in the United States. A critical step to help the Susquehanna is officially listing it as an impaired waterway. An official impairment status will designate the river for additional study and new levels of investment in restoration. Stand with CBF and its partners in urging Governor Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to list the Lower Susquehanna River as impaired.

The good news: a survey by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources found that the blue crab population has grown 35 percent. While science tells us the current crab population is still below recommended levels, the increase in population is a positive sign of improving water quality by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

As all baseball fans know, the season is quite long, and no team ever has, or ever will, go undefeated. But we will continue to fight for the Bay, and work to ensure along the way there are plenty more victories than defeats.

This Week in the Watershed: MDGA Closing Time, Threatened Susquehanna, and Growing Crabs

  • Students got their hands dirty learning how to build reef balls, critical structures in oyster restoration efforts. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • Maryland's General Assembly wrapped up this week, with both victories and disappointments for clean water advocates. (Bay Journal)
  • Oysters are a keystone species of the Chesapeake Bay, but scientists don't have any data on just how many oysters are in the Bay. That is going to change with the passage of a bill in the Maryland General Assembly which commissions a study to provide such data. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • How we produce and consume food in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has a major impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, this editorial effectively argues. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • The Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water to the Bay, was named the third most endangered river in the United States by the group, American Rivers. (Lancaster Intelligencer Journal—PA)
  • Lovers of Maryland blue crab received good news this week, as a survey by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources found that the blue crab population has grown 35 percent. We're not in the clear, however, as science tells us the current crab population is still below recommended levels. (Baltimore Sun—MD) Bonus: CBF Statement
  • The seemingly never-ending struggle between increased development and preserving open space has visited Howard County, MD. (Baltimore Sun—MD)

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

April 16

  • Cambridge, MD: Help CBF make the Choptank River cleaner and safer for the whole community during this river cleanup event. All supplies will be provided. Families and groups are welcome to attend. Click here to register!

April 21

  • Shady Side, MD: Break a sweat and help save the Bay— join CBF in cleaning the "homes" of the next generation of Chesapeake Bay oysters! Help restore the Chesapeake's native oyster population by cleaning oyster shells (we call it "shell shaking") by shaking off the dirt and debris so baby oysters can successfully grow on them. This event is a bit of a workout, but a fun hands-on experience. With lifting involved, it is not recommended for individuals with a bad back or other health concerns. A tour of our restoration center will follow the shell shaking. RSVP to Pat Beall at PBeall@cbf.org or 443-482-2065. Click here for more information!

April 23

  • Monkton, MD: Come help CBF plant 1,200 trees to restore six acres of forest on this new farm. The Little Gunpowder is a natural reproducing trout stream, and the restoration of this farm will help protect this cold water fishery. No tree planting experience is necessary, and all materials and supplies are provided. Families and children are welcome. Click here to register!
  • Church Hill, MD: Come paddle with us on the Blackwater River in Dorchester County, Maryland. Blackwater River is a prime example of a healthy tidal Eastern Shore river, replete with large expanses of tidal marsh and pine forests. The wildlife is dominated by various species of bird life, including nesting bald eagles, ospreys, herons, and ducks. The paddle is comfortable and peaceful, offering up-close views of herons fishing in the shallows and ducks nesting in the many trees along the banks. All canoes and paddling equipment will be provided. Children ages 10 and up are welcome to register, but must be accompanied by an adult. This is a paddle for people of all skill levels. Click here to register!

April 24

  • Annapolis, MD: Check out the 2016 Earth-Water-Faith Festival—a fun, family-friendly, interactive, interfaith celebration of Earth Day. Enjoy live music from Third Sunday Band, The Harmonic Fifth, and The All Children's Chorus of Annapolis, as well as activities including a "Scales and Tales" animal program, an oyster water-filtering display, kids' T-shirt printing, and celebratory readings. Free and open to the public! Click here for more information!

April 28

  • Baltimore, MD: Join CBF at its 3rd Annual Baltimore Members Meeting! With trash ubiquitous in the streets and waters of Baltimore, the focus of this year's meeting is the trash epidemic, its connection to clean water, and some potential solutions. Special guest Julie Lawson, Executive Director of Trash Free Maryland, will talk about current efforts to reduce trash and waste through social marketing, good policy, and more. Food, beverages, and music included. Space is limited, register now!

May 1

  • Richmond, VA: Come on out for a Speakers Bureau training with CBF! With far more requests for speakers than we have staff or time, CBF relies on its Speakers Bureau volunteers to handle a variety of speaking opportunities. Whether you are current on the issues and ready to share our message, or just enjoy public speaking and would like to get trained, we welcome your commitment to this important and high-profile program. Join us to learn the facts and skills to share our mission to Save the Bay with local groups and organizations. We simply cannot do it alone! Click here to learn more and register!

 —Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


Invasion of Body Snatchers Turns Mud Crabs into Zombies

The following first appeared in the Bay Journal.

Zombie-crab
"Zombie Crabs" might sound like a fabricated sci-fi tale, but they are actually a consequence of a parasite inflicted on mud crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Lara Lutz.

One creature invades the body of another. It snakes through the tissue and takes root, changing the behavior and appearance of its host. And then, a reproductive victory: The host must raise the invader's young in place of its own.

This sounds like science fiction, but it's not. It's a real world biological process taking place largely unnoticed in portions of the Chesapeake Bay.

The players in this drama are the small, white-clawed mud crab and an even smaller parasite called the Loxothylacus panopaei or Loxo for short.

Mud crabs infected by Loxo have been dubbed "zombie crabs" by scientists and volunteers who are working to understand the process and its impact on the crab's population. The work is led by biologist Monaca Noble and biodiversity genomics fellow Carolyn Tepolt of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD.

"It's kind of an amazing story," Tepolt said.

The Loxo parasite is native to the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and parts of Florida. Its presence as an invasive species in the Chesapeake region was first recorded in Virginia's York River in the 1960s, and researchers suspect it arrived on the shells of Gulf oysters that were imported to seed commercial oyster reefs.

The Loxo infects at least nine species of mud crabs throughout its range. In the Chesapeake, its target is the Rhithropanopeus harrisii, a brown crab with white claws that typically grows no larger than a human thumbnail.

In its larvae stage, the Loxo resembles a microscopic barnacle that floats freely through the water. Within days, it transforms to a more shield-like shape and seeks a host. Timing is critical. The Loxo can only infect a mud crab for about 24 hours after the crab molts, when its exoskeleton is soft and unprotected. Only females invade a host.

"They travel through the crab tissue and form rootlets, little tendrils throughout the tissue of the crab," Tepolt said.

When the process is complete, the union is disturbingly thorough. "You can't find a distinct individual parasite inside the crab, so you can't dissect it out," Tepolt said. "It's a body-snatcher."

When the crab molts again, the Loxo prepares to reproduce. A sac forms under the abdomen or apron of the crab, and a male Loxo attaches itself long enough to provide sperm. The next generation begins to form inside. The sac enlarges, pushes out the crab's abdomen, and becomes visible — the only sign of infection that can be observed without a microscope.

Thousands of larval parasites emerge from a pore in the sac about every five to 10 days. The process repeats several times before the sac is exhausted and a fresh one takes its place.

During this process, the Loxo shuts down the crab's ability to produce its own young.

"The body snatcher aspect of this is that it essentially castrates the crab, and all of its energy goes to support the parasite's reproduction," Tepolt said. "It changes the crab's behavior so that it takes care of the larvae as if they were its own eggs. They put their legs and claws around the sac in a defensive posture and attempt to protect it. Even the males do it."

Males transform physically, too. "Male crabs are feminized," Tepolt said. "The shape of their abdomen changes and gets rounder, like the females." This makes it easier for male crabs to hold, aerate, and protect the Loxo's eggs.

Tepolt and Noble are in the midst of both short-term and long-term studies that are investigating the impact on mud crab populations and the ecological conditions that might help them resist the parasite.

Smithsonian biologists began investigating the parasite 12 years ago, but the work was not always well-funded. Preserved crabs, infected and not, often sat in the lab awaiting time-intensive analysis.

In recent years, a robust volunteer program has boosted the research effort. This summer, 87 volunteers helped to collect mud crabs from the research center's dock and other sites across southern Maryland. A smaller team of regular volunteers helps in the lab year-round.

"We have information on crab size, distribution, sex ratio and whether they have the parasite or not," Noble said. "But now, going forward, the project has a second goal. How can we engage volunteers, teach them about the biology of these parasites, and teach them invasion ecology? It's a great opportunity."

As a result of volunteer support, the effort now includes 12 long-term sites and 10 sites that were added this year to support a more comprehensive analysis of the Rhode River, a small tributary south of Annapolis where the Smithsonian lab is located.

The number of mud crabs found at the sites has varied greatly from one year to the next, making it difficult to assess the larger population. In general, fewer mud crabs are found in places with more parasites, and this could be related to the shutdown of the mud crab reproductive system. Still, researchers say this particular type of mud crab is likely abundant in the Chesapeake Bay and, according to Noble, that's good.

"There are lots of animals that we don't eat that are still important to the Bay," Noble said. "Mud crabs are one of them. They are important predators. They eat a lot of things that live on oyster shells. They are also important prey for other crabs, fish and birds — a tasty treat for many things."

The presence of Loxo at study sites has varied too. "Some places don't have parasites at all and others have high abundance. Trying to tease apart the reasons is more problematic," Noble said.

Researchers speculate that low salinity and cool temperatures help to reduce infections, and preliminary data suggest mud crabs in the parasite's native range are much more resistant to attack.

But more research is needed. It could yield important information for mud crabs, as well as any potential situation in which related parasites invade the Bay and affect other species. The Loxo has not attacked blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, but a related species of parasite does impact blue crabs in the Gulf of Mexico.

"If it's not a problem now, could it be, if conditions change?" Noble asked.

—Lara Lutz

In honor of Halloween and creepy creatures like the zombie crab, check out our Top Five Scariest Chesapeake Critters!


This Week in the Watershed

Bluecrab_1200
While the blue crab was recently found to tolerate higher levels of hypoxia than previously thought, they're not out of danger. Photo by Damon Fodge.

As any mountain climber can attest, reaching new heights brings with it increased difficulty. The decreasing amount of oxygen in the air makes every breath more trying, to the point where oxygen is needed through personal tanks. Even the best of athletes can find themselves out of breath when facing low-oxygen environments.

In the Chesapeake Bay, critters are finding themselves facing a similar obstacle, as increased dead zones and warming waters from our rapidly changing climate are decreasing the level of oxygen in the water. Known as hypoxia, this condition depletes the Bay of life, devastating the ecosystem.

While new research by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science reveals blue crabs are more resilient to hypoxic conditions than previously thought, other creatures it depends on for food are vulnerable. The threat is clear and the plan to save the Bay is desperately needed. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, if implemented, can make a dramatic difference in bringing oxygen levels back to safe and healthy levels in the Bay. Now wouldn't that be a breath of fresh air!

This Week in the Watershed: Keystone Pollution, Environmental Literacy, and Blue Crabs

  • Agencies throughout Pennsylvania's state government are exploring ways to accelerate pollution reduction efforts in the Keystone State. (Lancaster Farming—PA)
  • The environmental literacy requirement in Maryland has been a huge success thus far. (What's Up Mag—MD)
  • How will blue crabs respond to increasing water temperatures due to climate change? New research reveals intriguing findings. (Daily Press—VA)
  • ICYMI, the American Farm Bureau Federation is continuing its fight against the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, filing for an extension of time to ask the Supreme Court to hear its appeal. (Bay Journal)

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

October 7

  • Virginia Beach, VA: CBF is hosting the second annual "Living Waters: Wading In" Interfaith Summit. Join us for a day of music, prayer, inspiring speakers, and collaborative work sessions as we explore ways the faith community can celebrate, protect, and restore our rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Click here to learn more and register!

October 9

  • Annapolis, MD: Want to help restore the Bay's oyster population? Become an oyster gardener! New oyster gardeners are required to attend an Oyster Gardening Workshop before beginning their first year of gardening, such as one in Annapolis October 9. Returning gardeners can register to pick up spat. Click here to learn more!

October 10

  • Easton, MD: Want to help restore the Bay's oyster population? Become an oyster gardener! New oyster gardeners are required to attend an Oyster Gardening Workshop before beginning their first year of gardening, such as one in Easton October 10. Returning gardeners can register to pick up spat. Click here to learn more!
  • St. Michaels, MD: Join us for a sail on CBF's historic skipjack, the Stanley Norman. While aboard, you'll be invited to help hoist the sails or simply enjoy the view! You will leave with a better understanding of oysters and their role in keeping the Bay clean as well as what CBF is doing to restore the Bay's oyster population. Click here to register!

October 11

  • Baltimore, MD: CBF's oyster gardening program is expanding to Baltimore Harbor! We're looking for 50 new gardeners to care for two cages of oysters each over the winter and then "plant" them on a reef in the spring. This unusual hobby is fun, educational, and helps to clean the harbor waters. Register here!

October 12

  • Annapolis, MD: The Annapolis VoiCeS Course, a six-week adult education class on Mondays, starts October 12! The course will cover regional environmental issues affecting Maryland and the Bay watershed. The program provides information on subjects affecting the health of our community's natural environment and how you can take action. In-depth sessions are taught by Bay experts from CBF and other regional institutions and organizations. Click here to register!

October 13

  • Easton, MD: The Eastern Shore of Maryland VoiCeS Course, a six-week adult education class on Tuesdays, starts October 13! The course will cover regional environmental issues affecting Maryland and the Bay watershed. The program provides information on subjects affecting the health of our community's natural environment and how you can take action. In-depth sessions are taught by Bay experts from CBF and other regional institutions and organizations. Click here to register!
  • Annapolis, MD: Current CBF oyster gardeners can pick up baby spat for the upcoming season. Register here!

October 14

  • Baltimore, MD: Get your hands dirty planting trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses in a vacant lot in West Baltimore that CBF and a coalition of groups are restoring. Click here to register!

October 15

  • Edgewater, MD: Another opportunity for current CBF oyster gardeners can pick up baby spat for the upcoming season. Register here!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


This Summer, the Crab Bake You Save May Be Your Own

The following first appeared in the Patriot News.

Blue Crab in Widgeon Grass Bed_1200
Grassy habitats are critical for blue crab survival. Photo by Jay Fleming/iLCP.

Crab cakes. Crab soup. Crab Imperial.

Encrusted with a favorite seasoning or lightly broiled as cakes, by the pound or by the bushel, we love our crab meat.

Blue crabs are one of the tastiest and more resilient species that come from the Chesapeake Bay and their fate is the hands of Pennsylvanians.

The good news is total numbers of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay are up slightly this year, after the 2012-2013 survey indicated a drastic loss down to 300 million.

The 2015 Chesapeake Bay winter crab dredge survey shows populations of juvenile and adult blue crabs have gone up to 411 million. Most notable is how adult females have clawed their way from 68 million to 100 million.

Blue crab populations fluctuate because of a witch's brew of factors like severe winters, the harvest, and pollution.

Chesapeake Bay watermen supply as much as one-third of the nation's blue crabs each year. About 75 percent of the Bay's adult blue crab stock is harvested. As for Mother Nature, there is little any of us can do to control the weather.

But pollution control is within our grasp. Driven by our commitment at CBF to improve water quality in Pennsylvania as well as the Bay, we cannot think of delicious crab meat without also thinking of crabgrass.

A dense lawn is one of the more effective barriers against what many Americans consider intrusive and offensive crabgrass.

Applying lawn fertilizer can help get the job done. But the runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment is the leading cause of impairment of 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania waterways.

Agriculture is the largest source of that pollution. Urban and suburban runoff are also key sources.

Pennsylvania delivers half of the freshwater that flows into the Bay. It's easy to see how what we do in Pennsylvania, through agriculture and what we put onto our lawns, affects the health of the Bay and its blue crabs.

The presence of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay encourages the explosive growth of algae. Algal blooms darken the water and block light, killing underwater grasses that re-oxygenate the water and provide critical shelter for crabs.

"Dead zones" are formed when blooms fed by polluted runoff quickly die and decay, sucking up oxygen. In order to find oxygen, crabs move to shallow waters where they are caught more easily.

These "Dead zones" also destroy or inhibit the growth of clams and worms, an important food source for crabs.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is a plan that sets pollution limits for Pennsylvania and the Bay.

Pennsylvania has developed an individual plan to achieve those pollution reduction goals and committed to two-year milestones that outline the actions it will take to achieve success.

Achieving pollution reduction goals and improving water quality in Pennsylvania, with a sensitivity toward how we handle pollution, can ensure an ecosystem in the Bay that supports a healthy blue crab population.

—Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director

Are you a resident of Pennsylvania? Make your voice heard, and tell your County Commissioners to pass a resolution saying Clean Water Counts in Pennsylvania!


Photo of the Week: The Largest Blue Crab I Have Ever Seen

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This is the largest blue crab I have ever seen, caught about 10 years ago in the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, FL. I spent a lot of time on the Bay as a youngster and a young man, until I relocated to Florida. 

An excerpt from my poem "Pretty Work" encapsulates my love for the Bay:

The shellpiles tell a story,
of the many
who have experienced the glory,
of harvesting the bounty
of the Bay.
But the glory is diminished
some even think its finished.
Can the decline be reversed,
or will it continue to get worse?
Can man and nature somehow combine
to save the day?

Powell_1

—Dr. Bob Powell

Ensure that Bob and future generations can continue to enjoy the extraordinary critters found in the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint! 

Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign] cbf.org, along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. We look forward to seeing your photos!


The Resilient Blue Crab

The following op-ed appeared on Friday in the Washington Post.

Blue crab blog
Photo by Damon Fodge

It's clearly been a poor year for Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvests. Average catches just three years ago were as much as twice as what they are now.

That is where Angus Phillips ["It's now or never for blue crabs," Sunday Opinion, July 27] and I agree. Where we disagree is what to do about it. Phillips called for a moratorium on crabbing. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) does not. Like many, we believe in managing fisheries through science, not quick-fix schemes. As my eighth-grade history teacher used to say, "Beware of simple answers to complex problems."

While a moratorium may be tempting in its simplicity, the CBF and most scientists believe that limits on the harvesting of female crabs are biologically appropriate for such a resilient species (which is far different from the striped bass, for which the CBF was a moratorium advocate). This approach will also have the added benefit of maintaining jobs and avoiding the economic devastation to communities like Smith and Tangier islands.

Blue crab reproductive success from year to year depends on many factors. Weather is one. Last winter's cold weather killed an estimated 28 percent of the bay's crabs. Pollution also can cause habitat loss. Bay grasses — great places for young crabs to hide from predators — are currently at only 20 percent of historic levels. The bay's dead zones kill the creatures that crabs rely on for food.

We believe that only a comprehensive crab management plan that addresses pollution, habitat and harvest will provide for a long-term sustainable fishery.

While there is plenty of reason for concern, there is also a bright note this crabbing season: Early results from Maryland and Virginia show an encouraging number of young crabs.

Phillips rhetorically asked whether the CBF is aware of the situation. Of course we are. The CBF's scientists have been in communication with the Maryland, Potomac and Virginia regulatory agencies responsible for blue crab management. Our senior fisheries scientist also is a member of the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, which oversees blue crab management baywide.

Phillips said he could not find one word about the issue on our Web site. I invite him to look again. A search of our Web site turned up more than 1,400 mentions of crabs — their importance, value and plight. In May, we published "Blue News," a blog posted soon after the annual crab survey results raised concerns about the population. It can be found at www.cbf.org/bluenews.

Finally, Phillips stated that the CBF was raising money for a new wing at our Annapolis Environmental Center, the world's first LEED platinum building. We are not. He also called it a palace. That is an odd description for a building that dramatically cuts energy and water use, reduces human pollution through zero-discharge composting toilets and is built inside and out with sustainable materials.

—Will Baker, CBF President


Blue News

1900700_10152273807345943_332332704_oPhoto by Nick Fornaro. 

The recent results of the annual blue crab winter dredge survey have us worried. The population has dropped below the safe level for adult females, which means it has officially become "depleted," and increased conservation may be needed. However, crabbing pressure has been within sustainable levels in recent years, so other factors besides harvest are also involved. 

As the Baltimore Sun recently stated: "It's clear something has fundamentally changed about the Maryland blue crab. Not the life cycle of the crab itself, of course, nor even the nature of the watermen who catch them, but the crab's habitat, which has been altered in a way that scientists are only now beginning to fully understand. The ability of crabs to bounce back from poor spawning years seems to have been greatly compromised by a less hospitable Chesapeake Bay."

Clearly one factor was the cold winter, which killed an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in Maryland waters. Normally, the crab population would be resilient to such natural factors, but it is likely that the continued poor quality of the habitat for crabs and other species in the Bay has made the population more vulnerable. For example, underwater grasses—where crabs like to take refuge—cover about 20 percent of the Bay bottom they did historically. Also, dead zones, caused by excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, reduce food for crabs by killing clams, worms, and other invertebrates, and crowd crabs into shallow water making them more vulnerable.  

Poor habitat conditions emphasize the need to implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint in order to reduce pollution and improve water quality and habitat. Of course, habitat improvements will take years, so in the short term, the only controllable factor we have is the harvest. The scientific community has called for a "risk-averse" approach to the crab fishery, and in response, the jurisdictions that manage the Bay’s crab fishery (Maryland, Virginia, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission) are planning to cut harvests by 10 percent in 2014. Exactly how they do that will depend on upcoming consultations with the crabbing industry.

Our viewpoint is as follows:

  • The only prudent management response is to be conservative with harvest to maintain as much spawning potential as possible to rebuild the population. Therefore, we support the jurisdictions plan to work with the industry to cut back on harvest by 10 percent.
  • A truly healthy crab population is not possible until water quality is improved and underwater grass bed habitat is restored. Improved habitat is essential to restoring resilience in the crab population. This underscores the urgent need to reduce pollution by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
  • The science-based guidelines for the blue crab fishery (target crabbing rate and population levels) provide solid boundaries for management and should be maintained. However, it is evident from the recent, wide fluctuations of the stock that these targets alone cannot achieve the level of productivity and stability that we need to achieve our goals.
  • We need to continue to improve harvest accountability and apply specific catch limits based on current population levels and allocate a portion to each jurisdiction.
  • Ultimately, we need to find a way to reduce total effort in the crab fishery so crabs are not caught up as soon as they reach legal size. Allowing crabs to live longer and grow larger will help stabilize the population and the fishery--more reproductive capacity for crabs and better economic conditions for Bay watermen.
  • With 25 years of data collected, the Chesapeake Bay winter dredge survey is a key tool in determining the health of the Bay’s blue crab population and provides the best information we have on the population of any Bay species.  

—Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Director of Fisheries

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The First Peeler Run

378John Werry
Photo by John Werry. 

"I look for them when the first strawberries come off," said Capt. Grant Corbin, one of Deal Island's most skillful crabbers (you'll find two chapters about crabbing with him in William W. Warner's classic book, Beautiful Swimmers). Grant was talking about the "peeler run," when the Chesapeake's crabs slough (shed) for the first time each year, as water temperatures reach the mid-60s (Fahrenheit). 

Capt. Lonnie Moore, CBF's Fleet Senior Manager, says that on Tangier Island, he looks for the locust trees to bloom. On the Severn River around Annapolis, Lonnie's locust tree cue is just as accurate. The locust blooms and their sweet aroma announce that beach-combing will turn up pale, limp crab shells that are hinged in the front and empty when examined. Somehow, the combination of air, water, and soil temperatures produce these natural cues to the Chesapeake's seasons.

"We don't get much sleep the first month," Grant Corbin notes. As his peeler pots fill with "rank" (about-to-shed) crabs, both he and his wife, Ellen, stay busy tending them 24/7 in their "floats" (shedding tanks). Ditto for other soft crabbers, from Capt. Bob Jobes in Havre de Grace at the head of the Bay to Grant's Deal Island neighbor, Roy Ford, and Tangier Island's Mayor, James ("Ooker") Eskridge.

Sloughing is a stressful process for blue crabs, which must survive the process some 21 to 23 times during their lives. The strenuous activity drives up their need for oxygen about six times. In the first peeler run's cooler temperatures, there is usually plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water. As summertime temperatures climb into the mid-'80s, however, sloughing mortality can go as high as 40 percent in waterways where nitrogen pollution drives algae blooms that cause lethal crashes in oxygen levels.

Two more problems for sloughing crabs are habitat loss and predation. Historically throughout the Chesapeake, the best protection for sloughing crabs has been vast meadows of underwater grasses. In the past 40 years, though, pollution has caused a brutal decline in those vital shallow water habitats. CBF's 2012 State of the Bay Report graded underwater grass beds at 20 out of 100, a D- and a drop from 22 in the 2010 report.

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Speckled Trout. Photo courtesy Capt. Ed Lawrence.
As to predation, "A soft crab doesn't have a friend in the world," laughs Grant Corbin. "We're not the only ones who want to eat him." In fact, predator fish like rock and speckled trout actually key on the first peeler run to move into shallow waters to feed. The run cues light tackle fishing captains like Kevin Josenhans in Tangier Sound and Chris Newsome and Ed Lawrence in Mobjack Bay to move into those rich areas to delight their clients with beautiful catches (which they often release with care).

Between soft crab sandwiches and memorable days on the water, there is much to celebrate in the first peeler run. If we want to keep these runs strong, through, we're going to have to manage our harvests carefully and continue the struggle to restore their underwater grass habitats and the dissolved oxygen they need to keep growing. As always, following the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is the key to a healthy Chesapeake.

 

John Page Williams
CBF's Senior Naturalist


Learn more about Grant and Ellen Corbin's soft crab operation here or make plans to go crabbing with Capt. Grant or other skillful watermen and -women!

To fish for rock and specks in shallow, crab-sloughing territory, visit Capt. Kevin Josenhans' website, Capt. Ed Lawrence's website, or Capt. Chris Newsome's website.


Larry Simns: The Bay Has Lost a Leader

 

LarrySimmsOMalley
President of Maryland Watermen's Association Larry Simns (left) with MD Governor O'Malley (right) at a press conference last year. Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff.
We have known for months this day was coming, but it was still a shock when I heard that Larry Simns had left us. Maryland's watermen lost their spiritual leader. The Chesapeake Bay lost a piece of its spirit. 

I often said that Larry had the hardest job of any of us that worked on Bay fisheries.  Maryland watermen are as diverse as the state: Eastern Shore/western shore, upper Bay/lower Bay, fishermen/crabbers/oystermen/clammers. But somehow Larry was able to unite those voices around their common heritage of working the water. Just look south to Virginia where there are a dozen different watermen's associations to appreciate how hard that is. This unity of purpose aimed at preserving that heritage may be Larry's biggest legacy, and if the Maryland Watermen's Association is able to maintain it, that will be a fitting memorial to Larry.

Larry and I often disagreed. The MWA and the Bay Foundation often were at odds. We took our "turn in the barrel," as Larry called them, in his Watermen's Gazette editorials many times. Usually this was a result of disagreeing on short term issues, but in truth we shared the same long-term vision of a healthy Bay that supported vibrant fisheries. But even when our disagreements were strong, or even emotional, Larry could always find a way to put those things aside when we needed to work together on common interests like protecting the Bay. He was able to "agree to disagree" on some things and still work together on others better than anyone I know, and that trait served Maryland's watermen and Chesapeake Bay very well all those years.

Larry represented Maryland watermen. Sport fishermen and charter captain leaders represent those groups. CBF tries to represent the Bay. While there are plenty of differences between us, there is also a lot of common ground. In Larry's memory, I hope we can keep the focus on the common ground. That's the best recipe for saving the Bay and its fisheries.

—Bill Goldsborough
CBF's Director of Fisheries