Blue crabs are pulled out of an industrial steamer at Russell Hall Seafood in Fishing Creek, Md. Each crab will be hand-picked before being shipped and sold as lump crab meat. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl/Chesapeake Bay Program)

As far back as the 17th century, Virginians and Marylanders have been setting restrictions on how people can catch fish and shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay.

It started simple enough. In 1670, Virginia colonists prohibited the obstruction of migrating fish, and in 1760, Maryland passed a bill to prevent people from “making or repairing fish dams” on the Susquehanna River.

At the turn of the 19th century, northeastern oyster fisheries collapsed and sent waves of New England oystermen down to the Bay. The hopeful harvesters arrived in industrial fishing vessels capable of dredging, which caused the state to ban the practice in 1810. Preparing for the end of the Civil War, the state began setting harvest seasons and other restrictions between 1860 and 1866—but that wasn’t enough for the deluge of local, out-of-state and British oysterman who began ransacking the Bay and greatly depleting the oyster population.

Since those early days, Virginia has had officers enforcing marine law. During the Oyster Wars of the mid-19th century, it was Virginia’s Oyster Navy, sailing around in a cannon-firing tugboat called Leila, who kept an eye on lawless oystermen.

Though much more peacefully, marine officers continue to this day to protect our species from overharvesting, as well as keep people from buying and consuming unhealthy seafood. The Bay’s oysters and crabs aren’t as plentiful as they were in the past, making this job even more important to anyone who catches, sells and eats Chesapeake seafood.

Conserving and protecting marine species in Virginia

The Virginia Marine Police patrols the historic waters of Virginia’s Eastern Shore to enforce state and federal marine laws. On a given day, these officers monitor the shore and its tributaries, checking up on fishers as they come in and out of the docks.

“This time of year, commercial and recreational crabbing is big,” said Zach Widgeon, a fifteen-year marine police veteran. “We find the crabbers, inspect their catch, make sure they aren’t working too many hours and that the crabs are the right size.”

Restrictions such as crab size and a designated cutoff time for crabbers ensures that the species can safely reproduce for the next year. Blue crabs in the Bay are managed by three jurisdictions: the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and Potomac River Fisheries Commission. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, part of the Chesapeake Bay Program, gathers science and data to evaluate the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population annually and share their analysis with the jurisdictions that, if needed, set new catch limits or size restrictions to manage the harvest.

According to Widgeon, the vast majority of crabbers and fishers understand the need to conserve species, if only to ensure that they have something to catch and sell each year.

“They know that if enough of them don’t follow the law they won’t have a paycheck the next year,” said Widgeon.

The marine police are responsible for making sure fishers are aware of current laws. In years past, officers have gone out to bait and tackle stores to hand out guidelines that people can keep with them, but now the agency is trying to develop apps that boaters can reference. Until those are in place, officers also talk with fishers regularly to make sure they know about any new restrictions.

“When we walk out onto a fishing pier to check what people are catching, half our job is to talk to people and to answer questions,” said Widgeon.

Making sure that watermen and water women are working areas with healthy water is another job of the marine police. Severe storms, increased pollution and even high boater activity can leave an area unsafe for fish and shellfish, so it’s the marine police’s job to zone off different locations.

Climate change shakes things up

Warming waters, an increase in severe storms and other impacts of climate change has made the job a little different from when Widgeon’s own father patrolled the waters.

The shellfish harvest, for example, is routinely impacted by severe weather. During a heavy rainstorm, rain that lands in areas with a high number of impervious surfaces (roads, parking lots, docks) causes stormwater to runoff, bringing more nutrients and sediment into waterways, which can choke oysters, destroy their habitat and cause fatal diseases. Also, oysters can only live, thrive, and reproduce in waters that have certain salinity levels; too much fresh water is not healthy for them. Back in 2018, record-breaking rainfall led to the death of many oysters in several areas of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries due to an influx of freshwater and pollutants.

In Virginia, the Department of Shellfish Sanitation tests the waters constantly to determine when they are unsafe for harvest, and the marine police promote and enforce these restrictions. They are “diligent water quality testers,” according to Widgeon, monitoring waters daily with the goal of ensuring safe consumption.

Another climate change impact—warming water temperatures—has changed the job for both marine police and commercial crabbers. You used to be able to set your clock by when blue crabs emerged from the water, shed their shells and mated, but now, their favorite biological indicator (temperature) has changed things up.

“The fact of the matter is that warmer winters are happening more frequently, and that has shifted some of the crab life cycle and breeding cycle by days, weeks and [even] months sometimes,” said Widgeon.

Keeping up with these changing cycles matters greatly to the conservation of blue crabs. If crabbers harvest blue crabs before they’ve mated or at the wrong stage of their growing cycle, that limits the population's ability to reproduce. Marine police need to stay on top of these changes to ensure the state is harvesting sustainably.

“Our number one priority is conservation,” said Widgeon.

Where can you learn about oyster and crab abundance?

The Chesapeake Bay Program’s website includes a webpage for blue crabs and oysters that provides up-to-date information on how the populations are doing, as well as what threats exist, while more extensive data related to the conservation of these species can be found on our website Chesapeake Progress.

Sustainable Fisheries is one of ten goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which guides the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program. Its members work hand-in-hand with the members of other Goal Implementation Teams, such as Vital Habitats, Water Quality and Land Conservation to protect the entire watershed ecosystem.

Next time you sit down to a plate of blue crabs or oysters, remember how it takes collaboration between conservationists, marine officers and the Bay’s iconic watermen and women to keep these delicious and fascinating critters from disappearing.

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