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

Powell_2
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

Help us get the word out about this disturbing news! It matters to the health of our Bay for us and future generations:

Click here to share on Facebook!

Share on Twitter


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.

258
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


A Legacy to Save the Bay

Danny Bowles.jpgIn life, Daniel "Danny" Bowles was a loving father, son, husband, brother, and loyal friend. Now, after his passing, those who love him are committed to ensuring his legacy lives on.

After he passed away in 2011 at the age of 37, Danny's family and friends created the Daniel Bowles Memorial Foundation to raise money in support of causes that he believed in. As an avid crabber, fisherman, and boater, Danny had a special place in his heart for the Chesapeake Bay.

Recently, on what would have been Danny's 39th birthday, his friends and wife, Genine, visited CBF's Merrill Center to make a donation to CBF in his memory. The donation represented the proceeds from the highly successful Daniel Bowles Memorial Bull Roast held last October, which was attended by 150 of his closest friends and family. This annual event is just one way Danny's family is keeping his memory alive.

Memorial donations like these are vital to CBF's continued success in our efforts to save the Bay. If you would like to learn more about how you can memorialize a loved one with a gift to CBF, visit our website or call us at 410/268-8816 (or 888/SAVEBAY).

—Brie Wilson


Bay's Health Showing Real Progress

The following op-ed appeared in Gazette.net Maryland Community News Online late last week.

SOTB_2012CoverThis is a historic moment in time for the Chesapeake Bay and all the rivers and streams throughout its entire six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed. In fact, this is the moment in time for the Chesapeake. Never before have the stars aligned so well for the Bay's future. While there has been some squabbling, and even lawsuits, by extremists on both sides, cooperation between individuals, businesses and government has led to real progress. The state of the Bay is improving.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's State of the Bay health index, the first such Bay report card and the longest running, shows a 14 percent improvement since 2008. Cooperation and sound science have overcome the narrow interests of opposition. We can clearly see a saved Bay in our generation.

But make no mistake, the Bay is not yet saved. A D+ is not a grade my parents, at least, would ever accept ("Report: Slight uptick in Bay’s health," Jan. 4). The Bay is still dangerously out of balance.

Overall, our State of the Bay Report shows that five of the 13 indicators are up, seven are unchanged, and only Bay grasses are down. In the last two-year reporting period, the levels of phosphorous pollution have declined, the amount of land permanently protected in conservation has increased, blue crabs have increased, and dissolved oxygen levels have increased. All of this shows a Bay fighting for survival, and the fact that the dissolved oxygen levels have actually improved during a period of high storm events may be a strong indication that the Bay's legendary resilience is returning.

Ironically, we worry that the good news, albeit modest, may breed a certain level of complacency among the public and even our elected officials. This would be a huge mistake, as the gains have been modest, incremental, and the system is still fragile. If we have learned anything over the years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it is the fact that the Bay is a study in contrasts, even contradictions.

Consider the one down indicator of the 13 in our report card—underwater grasses. Upper Bay grasses on the Susquehanna Flats tripled over the past 20 years, but declined in the last two-year reporting period. Grass beds in the Severn River are abundant, but in much of Virginia, grasses decreased, a victim of high water temperatures.

Going forward, here is what we all want for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers: clean and safe water, abundant seafood and healthy habitat. Over the centuries, all three have been thrown out of balance. Now, thanks to good science informing good policy, supported and implemented by a broad base of cooperation, each is starting to show signs of improvement.

That some are lobbying Congress and suing in federal court to stop the progress is not only tragic, it is mind-boggling. All of us who value the Chesapeake and are determined to see a better future for our children and grandchildren must let our voices be heard. It is time to finish the job.

—William C. Baker
President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Learn more about our Save the Bay efforts through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.


Chesapeake Born: Bay Saving Lessons Learned, Looking Back

The below "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service.

Map2"Saving the Chesapeake Bay is a test; if we pass we get to keep the planet," wrote Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker in the foreword to a book I wrote about 20 years ago for CBF.

The Bay, on the doorstep of the nation's capital, polluted by all modern humans do, was as good a place as any to learn if humans could exist sustainably with the rest of nature.

What have we learned since that book, "Turning The Tide," was published in 1991? In a revised, 2003 edition I set out six "Lessons Learned" that looked back over the previous decade.

Then, the "lessons" seemed mostly that we still had a lot to learn.

Now it's two decades; time to revisit.

Myth of Voluntary: It was clear in 2003 that the voluntary nature of the Bay restoration was flawed. Our best successes had been the odd instances where we banned something, from using phosphate detergents to catching rockfish.

Only in the last few years was the voluntary model officially abandoned, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposing a mandatory pollution diet on the states.

The EPA's action "represents the biggest progress we've made in the last decade. . . goes far beyond what (EPA) has done anywhere else," said Roy Hoagland, a long-time top official of the Bay Foundation, now a private consultant.

It will be critical to further strengthen the EPA's hand, as local governments and states bridle at the costs of meeting water quality obligations, and as the Republican leadership in Congress vows to weaken the agency.

Accountability: Much positive has happened in the last decade or so—a science-based annual report card on the health of the Bay and tributaries from the University of Maryland; better defined goals for everything from oysters to open space; and the inclusion of air pollution as a significant impact on the Bay.

Agriculture, a leading source of Bay pollution, is becoming more accountable, though this remains a work in progress; a lesson not wholly learned.

Stormwater regulations have taken a leap forward, although the inspection and enforcement that will make them work lag badly.

Management of growth, Hoagland said, "continues to be our most miserable failure . . . we have yet to find the political will to control sprawl development."

All six states in the Bay watershed are now part of the restoration effort.

Leadership: Politics at the national level are even more partisan on the environment than they were during the 1990s—and even then environmentalists spent too much time playing defense when they needed progress.

Republican leadership is abysmal, environmentally. Democrats are better, but no longer pushed by Republicans to hold the line or improve. At state levels, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have shifted back and forth among Democrat and Republican governors; and it was a Republican in Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, who gets credit for funding major sewage treatment upgrades.

A conclusion I made in 2003 rings even truer now: "The environmental community needs to rethink how to build a consensus for the Bay that reaches well beyond its own members." The environmental focus remains too narrow, too vulnerable to unfounded charges that it kills jobs and serves only an elite.

"As we go to press (in 1991) our optimism is tempered by an all-too predictable reaction to a faltering economy," Baker wrote. And in 2012 we still hear that the Bay must wait until the economy heals.

Money: We have spent billions on the Bay and need to spend more billions. But money, Hoagland stated, has not been the bottleneck stopping more progress.

He suggested it might become the bottleneck as we confront ever more expense with sewage and stormwater retrofits, where we are into areas of diminishing returns for our dollar.

We must look harder at removing taxpayer subsidies for growth and other activities that cost society money to offset their polluting effects, and also include the real costs of pollution in the prices we pay for doing business.

Maryland's Genuine Progress Indicator, a pilot program that subtracts environmental costs from economic growth, is a start on this.

Good Science: Science has led to better blue crab management; the use of cover crops to cut farm runoff; showed how development harms stream health, and led to (slowly) regulating manure to control phosphorus runoff.

But the EPA still lacks a coherent national policy on nitrogen, the Bay's main pollutant. Federal subsidies for ethanol from corn increase nitrogen runoff and don't reduce energy use. Nor is farm runoff elsewhere under federal scrutiny like here. Our agriculture needs a level playing field.

Defining Real Progress: We need "the guts to make fundamental changes," Baker wrote in 2003. In 2012, most progress still relies on tweaking technologies like sewage treatment, smokestack emissions and stormwater retention devices—all good, but avoid questions about limits to growth, or to diets that could reduce agricultural pollution dramatically.

Lessons learned? School's not over yet.

—Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Image: Courtesy of NASA.


Get Ready for Summertime Picnics!

Clagett2_BlogSummer vegetables at CBF's Clagett Farm. Photo by CBF Staff.

Nothing screams summer like crab cakes, grilled veggies, and rockfish tacos…yum! And no one cooks them better than Chef Emeril Lagasse. A few years ago, in an effort to promote healthy, eco-friendly cooking, Emeril came out to CBF’s Clagett Farm to learn about Vegetable Production Manager Carrie Vaughn’s organic, fertilizer-free way of planting veggies. While there, Emeril talked with Farm Manager Michael Heller as well about his methods of raising healthy, grass-fed cattle. The chef’s entourage even went rockfishing with CBF’s Senior Naturalist John Page Williams and learned about the challenges facing this important and tasty fish!

To get you in the mood for summer this Memorial Day Weekend, check out some of our favorite recipes courtesy of Emeril, our Facebook fans, and local food epicurean Rita Calvert. You’ll see these recipes use healthy, local foods, which not only prove to be good for the environment, but they taste great, too!

—Emmy Nicklin

Check out our complete listing of fresh and local recipes as well as more of Emeril’s “Taste of the Bay” recipes.