Blue Crab Blues: Seafood Business Drowning

Paul Kellam flips two Maryland blue crabs over to show the difference between a female, left, and a male, in Ridge, Md. on June 24, 2008. AP PHOTO

Chesapeake Bay crabber Paul Kellam has advice for the teenage boys who help tend his traps every summer: You better have a backup plan.

It's an anxious summer for watermen harvesting the Chesapeake's best-loved seafood, the blue crab. The way some see it, the crabbing business here isn't just dying. It's already dead.

Crabs have thrived in the bottom muck of the Chesapeake and its tributaries even as centuries of overfishing harmed oysters, fish and other species in the nation's largest estuary. Now blue crabs are in trouble, too, and when they go, a way of life is sure to go with them.

"There was a time when crabbers were only out here from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now, it's about all we have left," says Kellam, 53, steering his 30-year-old rig "Christy" out of the Potomac River and onto the bay for a day of crabbing. The contradictory decor in the cabin sums up the outlook of today's waterman: a red wooden good-luck horseshoe dangles over a mud-splattered copy of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook."

The bay's blue crab stock is down about 65 percent since 1990 due to overfishing and water pollution, according to Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers. The states have imposed steep cuts on this year's female crab harvest, aiming to reduce the number of crabs taken by more than a third.

For Kellam and his neighbors in southern Maryland, where the working rigs and crab picking houses that sustained these communities for generations have been replaced by yachts and vacation homes, hopes are dim that the blue crabs will ever come back.

"It's looking worse every year," says Bob McKay, who at 74 is the oldest working waterman in St. Mary's County. He still sells crabs out of a shed in his yard but doubts the industry will live much longer than he does. "I don't know what the solution could be."

Watermen have turned to real estate and automobile repair. They've opened seafood restaurants and bakeries.

The best way to make money on the Chesapeake these days is taking businessmen from Washington and Philadelphia on charter fishing trips. Those who still rely on crabbing are further hurt by a double punch of higher fuel costs and an economic downturn that's meant fewer consumers dropping up to $200 on a bushel of crabs.

"People don't have the disposable income. They're just not buying," says Kellam, who spends up to $150 a day on diesel, which costs about $5 a gallon at a nearby marina.

There was a time when Chesapeake watermen made their living off the winter oyster harvest, using hand tongs and later power dredges to supply most of the world's oysters. But disease and over-harvesting nearly wiped out Chesapeake oysters in the 1980s, and despite millions invested in restoration, they've never recovered. Scientists estimate the Chesapeake now contains about 1 percent of the oysters it once did.

After the oyster industry collapsed, watermen looked to hardy blue crabs to make up the slack. But the next generation may not have another option.

"I want to make a living on the water," says Randy Plummer, a chain-smoking 19-year-old who works on Kellam's crab rig. "But there ain't no future in it. Everybody knows that."

Plummer has wanted to crab since he was a boy, but is instead headed to community college this fall, at the urging of Kellam and his parents.

Even scientists who called for the harvest reductions say overfishing isn't entirely to blame.

The main culprit is water pollution and soil runoff from development throughout a watershed that is home to 10 million people. Excess nutrients wash into the Chesapeake, causing algae blooms and choking the native plant life that crabs rely on for food and habitat. In the summer, large swaths of the Chesapeake contain so little oxygen that scientists call them "dead zones," because few critters can live there.

Watermen call it "bad water," and they track it all summer, following crabs as they skitter to shallower water that contains more oxygen. Even when watermen luck out and pull up a pot full of crabs, long-timers say the crabs are nothing like they used to be.

"Sometimes in the summer, you pull the pots up, they've got algae and mud all over them. The bad water comes in and coats everything and the crabs can't stand it," Kellam explains.

He now spends hours hauling up the same number of crabs he could catch in a few pots a decade ago. And what he catches isn't as healthy-looking as the crabs he caught as a boy. Wholesalers are buying them anyway.

"They're buying a lot of stuff that 10 years ago they would've turned away," Kellam says.

Maryland and Virginia officials have responded to the watermen's plight by asking the federal government for a disaster declaration that would free up about $20 million to subsidize crabbers and seafood processors until blue crabs rebound.

Maryland is also working on sweeping revisions to state planning laws with an eye toward protecting its 3,000 or so miles of shoreline. Already this year, the state toughened zoning laws dealing with development closest to the water, a law that aims to reduce sediment and pollution running into the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

"It's certainly getting more difficult to make a living on the water," conceded Lynn Fegley, a biologist in charge of crabs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But Fegley says the cynicism along the Chesapeake is unfounded. There will always be Chesapeake blue crabs, she says - as long as watermen lay off them when the stock dips.

"As the watershed gets more crowded, the face of the fishery may change. But people are always going to want seafood, right? It's healthy and it's delicious. What we have to do is find a way to harvest seafood that's sustainable for the future," Fegley says.

But Thomas Courtney, who sells Kellam the alewife fish he uses for bait, laughs when asked whether state efforts to revive blue crabs will bring them back.

"It ain't what we're pulling out of the water. It's what we're putting in the water," says Courtney, 62. "You've got a cornfield, 20 acres, you put 80 or 90 houses on it, hook 'em up to sewer pipes, put roads and ditches down. That's what's destroyed the bay. It ain't us. They let development take over and then, that's it, we're done."
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