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The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, with a watershed that spans 64,000 square miles, touching on six states. It’s an economic engine to two of those states, a source of food for many and close to the hearts of millions. Five public radio organizations—WYPR in Baltimore, Virginia Public Radio, Delmarva Public Radio at Salisbury University, Delaware Public Media and WESM at The University of Maryland Eastern Shore are collaborating to produce reports examining a broad spectrum of issues affecting the Bay and its watershed. Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

Without the she crab, there'd be no he crab

Credit Pamela D'Angelo
Virginia Waterman Ida Hall shows off a sponge crab

The Atlantic blue crab, Chesapeake Bay’s signature crustacean, has been through tough times in the last 20 years. Some recent improvement has been credited to restrictions on harvesting females. Yet Virginia still allows the harvest of egg-bearing females, something Maryland banned back in 1917. The reasons why seem to be wrapped up in economics.

In late June, Ida Hall, a commercial waterman was pulling crab pots from creek just inside Virginia’s western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. As she sorted large from small male crabs she also tossed egg-bearing females, called sponge crabs, into a separate basket.

The eggs will drop off or be removed at the picking house, never to hatch and add to the bay’s crab population. And Hall will earn about 37- and-a-half cents a pound for her crabs.

She says the market "has a tendency to drive what we harvest if it’s legal to harvest them." 

Considering the amount of hand-wringing Virginia fisheries managers do over blue crab stocks, it seems astounding that it’s legal to harvest sponge crabs. But Hall, who also sits on the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which takes on these issues, says it’s only fair.

"If you restrict that then you are going to cut out a whole group of crabbers," she says. "What are you going to give back to the watermen who lose it all?"

As any watermen, and most scientists, will tell you, female crabs only mate once, but they produce millions of eggs anywhere from three to six times during their lives.

And given crab migration patterns, the majority of sponge crabs are in Virginia waters and mostly caught in southern tributaries close to the mouth of the Bay.

Virginia allows the harvest of sponge crabs by egg color and water temperature. The darker the color of the egg mass, the closer they are to hatching. So from March until about June 15, when the water warms up, those with darker eggs are illegal and crabbers have to throw them back.

Tammy and Mike Croxton, who buy Hall's crabs, say that's a waste. You can only get $15 for a bushel of pregnant crabs, Mike says. But you can get $17 for a mere dozen soft crabs, adds Tammy.

"So, you figure that's a dozen crabs that we have eliminated out of the water for $17," she argues. "And how many thousands of crabs or millions of crabs are you losing of busted sooks that are going up the road for $15 a bushel?"

Scientists say most sponge crabs and their eggs caught during the heat of the summer die either in the pot or after being thrown back. So Virginia allows them to be harvested, but not everywhere.

The state has had a sanctuary "that extends from the bay mouth essentially and a little bit below into the coastal area, all the way up to off Tangier, a total of about 928 square miles," says Virginia fisheries manager Rob O'Reilly.

Scientists, who have been keeping an eye on the fluctuation in the blue crab population since the 1930s, established the original sanctuary in 1941 at the request of the Hampton Crab Packers Association.

Crabs migrate annually from the Atlantic up into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, then back again in the fall.

Glenn Davis, a biologist for Maryland, chairs a committee of scientists who annually assess blue crabs. He says as long as there are enough female crabs, there will be plenty of babies, so there is "no need to place that much burden on the industry when with a little bit of patience and a sound management plan those crabs will come back within a year or two."

Interestingly, the female crab population is up this year. And Virginia fisheries managers are now considering more restrictions on the male population by increasing the minimum size limit.

The Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded by the participating stations with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

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