Blue crabs are one of the most recognized and oft-consumed species in the Chesapeake Bay. Watermen harvest the olive green, eight-legged crustacean with trotlines and crab pots so tourists and watershed natives alike can eat them at bars, restaurants and paper-covered picnic tables all summer long. But despite continued demand, the commercial harvest of blue crabs has dropped by two-thirds over the last two and a half decades.
Since 1990, commercial watermen have harvested more than 1.6 billion pounds of blue crabs from the Bay. Data show commercial harvest has experienced a steady decline, and last year hit the lowest level recorded in 25 years: 35 million pounds.
Why was harvest so low? “A combination of factors,” said Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee Coordinator Emilie Franke. One factor that often affects harvest is the set of regulations put in place to conserve the population. Last season, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission responded to relatively low blue crab abundance by putting additional commercial harvest regulations in place. But these regulations alone do not determine harvest levels. Low crab abundance can also lower harvest, making it harder for crabbers to catch crabs in the first place. In other words, the explanation could lay in the blue crab population and the host of factors that affect it.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) brings together scientists and representatives from the federal government, state governments and academic institutions. It meets each year to review the results of blue crab surveys and develop management advice.
“Chesapeake Bay blue crabs were considered depleted in 2014 due to low female abundance," Franke said. "But jurisdictions have harvested below the female exploitation target for seven consecutive years. So there are obviously other factors at play affecting population and harvest levels. A lot of these factors are things fishery managers can't control."
On the list? Natural variability, water quality, habitat quality, predator and prey abundance, disease, competition and overwintering mortality, all of which affect the amount of blue crabs in the Bay. (Overwintering mortality affected all segments of the blue crab population in 2015, for instance, and led to an estimated 15 percent drop in overall abundance.)
Tracking these factors—including those we can control—is critical to blue crab management. This is one reason accurate harvest reporting is so important. In its annual report on the status of the blue crab population, CBSAC recommended continued improvement in the quality of catch and fishing effort information submitted by commercial and recreational harvesters. Jurisdictions have explored new harvest technologies in recent years, and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a commitment to improve harvest accountability.
The state of Maryland’s electronic harvest reporting pilot program is an example of new harvest reporting technology in action. While traditional paper-based reporting can be inefficient and prone to errors, electronic reporting can provide more timely, accurate and verifiable information to fishery managers.
“Increased harvest accountability provides managers with an accurate picture of the fishery, which helps inform future management decisions,” Franke said. “Getting a better understanding of catch and fishing effort is a big priority.”
Commercial and recreational fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay are an important part of the region’s culture, economy and ecosystem. But as key species in the estuary’s food web, fish like striped bass and bluefish rely on “forage”—the smaller fish, shellfish and invertebrates that underwater predators feed on. According to a recent report from the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), a better understanding of this aquatic forage base could help support a healthy and balanced Chesapeake Bay.
Despite their importance in the Bay ecosystem, uncertainty remains as to the species that make up the forage base and how they interact with their environment. In the report, managers and scientific experts from across the region discuss the current level of knowledge and what additional information would help experts better manage forage species.
Key forage species listed in the report include the bay anchovy, mantis shrimp and several types of small, underwater invertebrates such as amphipods and isopods. Some of these species, like Atlantic menhaden, are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) or by states in the Bay region. But, the report states, most of the forage base is not currently being managed. With a better understanding of key forage species, the habitats those species rely on and the interactions between predators and the forage base, experts can build plans that support management of predator species and the Bay ecosystem as a whole.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are committed to improving their understanding of the role forage fish play in the Bay ecosystem, as well as supporting efforts to restore and protect critical fish habitat. Information included in the report is aimed at helping partners meet those goals.
The report, Assessing the Chesapeake Bay Forage Base: Existing Data and Research Priorities, is available on the STAC website.
The bald eagle, a national symbol of strength and resiliency, may be a common sight today, but just a few decades ago toxic pollutants working their way up the food chain had the species toeing the line of extinction. Prevalent use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a harmful insecticide, on agricultural fields caused eagles to produce eggs that were too delicate to support the incubating bird, lowering hatch rates in a drastic way. The decline was so severe that by DDT’s ban in 1972, only 482 breeding pairs were left throughout the entire continental United States.
Following the ban, one nesting pair of bald eagles remained in the state of New York, and their eggs were too contaminated with chemicals to be considered a viable means of repopulation. Restoration efforts began across the nation, but two researchers in particular, Peter Nye from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Tom Cade of Cornell University put New York on the map as a key player in eagle repopulation tactics. They took to using an ancient falconry practice called hacking to raise eaglets in a controlled, but wild, environment, to ensure that the birds would learn the proper survival techniques to independently prosper after fledging the nest.
“Their goal was to establish 12 nesting pairs in New York. By 1988, they had achieved the goal of 12 nesting pairs, and here we are in 2015 with more than 300. I know down in Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay area there are even more, so the reintroduction has been very successful,” said Michael Clark, Senior Wildlife Biologist for New York DEC. Clark and his colleague Scott Van Arsdale, Wildlife Technician for New York DEC, were mentored by Nye, and have taken over the legwork of tagging and monitoring the birds since Nye’s retirement.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
It’s an overcast summer morning in Berkeley County, West Virginia, and Todd Butler has parked his pick-up truck atop one of the many hills that roll across his property. He points to the ridge of a nearby mountain peak, where the dense, forested tree line is broken by a small gap. “I’m sitting in my house, and I can see this mountain from there,” Butler recalls. “I never will forget the very first morning I sat there, and I saw a light on top of that mountain, and I thought, ‘What is that?’ And it turns out, they’d built a house up there.”
As the fourth-generation owner of Butler Farms, Butler has been witness to plenty of changes over the years: a decline in the number of neighboring farms, a rise in residential development, a technology boom for farming equipment. And while some features have remained the same—the original farmhouse, barn and cattle gates are still standing—much of the farm’s operation is dramatically different from when Butler’s great-grandfather bought the land in 1919. Almost a century later, the 200-acre family dairy farm has grown to more than 1,000 acres, home to beef cattle, an apple orchard and a bird and deer hunting preserve.
Over the years, Butler and his father, Bill, have transformed their property into one of the top conservation farms in the Mountain State. A variety of practices—from streamside fencing to cover crops—help to reduce runoff and promote water quality. Cattle drink out of troughs rather than straight from streams, and their feed wagons are continuously moved to different locations to prevent a single area from getting trampled or polluted with manure. The farm’s 72 apple orchard plots are farmed in strips; the land between each row of trees is left untouched to help slow the flow of water and prevent soil from washing away.
Sustainable pest management practices have made the land of Butler Farms a haven for insects, birds and other wildlife. Pollinator-friendly native flowers and grasses border the fields. Patches of sorghum, an annual grass that produces bright red berries, will feed birds and deer through the winter. When Butler was younger, he remembers entire fields being sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. Now, he says, “we don’t use near the chemicals that we used to. Everything used to be in quarts or gallons; now we’re down to ounces.”