Critical Actions to Save the Bay
Crab harvesting at dawn. Photo by Tom Boddorff
When healthy, Maryland's fisheries boost our economy, help keep the Bay system in balance, and support a treasured way of life. Unfortunately, despite management efforts, blue crabs have returned to alarmingly low numbers the last two years; menhaden are at a historic low; and oyster counts, while improving, remain at just a few percent of historic levels. Maryland should be a leader in restoring these and other depleted stocks by maintaining or expanding existing efforts consistent with the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement and the interstate fishery management plans of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).
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Maintain the science-based guidelines now in place for the blue crab fishery, and establish annual quotas based on stock status, which reduce harvest pressure on crabs by giving crabbers an incentive to tailor crabbing efforts to their quotas.
In 2008, Maryland adopted science-based guidelines for maintaining and growing a healthy blue crab population. These guidelines provide reference points for monitoring the population and preventing overfishing. They are supplemented by specific rules for crabbing, including daily catch limits, limits on the amount of gear watermen can use, minimum sizes crabs must be for harvesting, and the harvest seasons.
Annual Catch Quotas
Under the current system, crabbers compete to catch as many crabs as possible under the current rules. To do so, crabbers deploy an excessive number of crab pots and other gear, resulting in higher costs for the crabbers, lower numbers of crabs caught per pot, and additional stresses on the crab population.
Annual catch quotas are an alternative to the mix of rules that currently apply to crabbing. Under the catch quota system, each year a commercial crabber would get a quota or "share" of the total harvest that he or she could catch. Certain rules like minimum sizes and closed areas would still need to apply, but a crabber would need less gear and have the flexibility to work when it made sense for them economically (i.e. when the market price was good), in convenient sequence with other fishing activities, in good weather, and so on. Individual quotas are an idea favored by many crabbers after seeing it work for other fisheries, including the commercial striped bass fishery in the Bay.
Maryland needs to follow through on developing an individual quota system for the blue crab fishery.
Advance the recovery of Atlantic menhaden by advocating that ASMFC adopt a new management plan with ecologically based reference points and by working with Virginia to assess and maintain a healthy forage base in the Bay.
New ASMFC Management Plan
As a result of a scientific assessment in 2010 that found the menhaden population at its lowest point on record, the ASMFC cut back on the catch by 20 percent to give the population a better chance to recover. The Commission also committed to developing "ecologically based reference points"—guidelines for managing the fishery that take into account the important role that menhaden play as food for other fish, sea birds, and marine mammals. A new scientific assessment to be completed in early 2015 is expected to set the stage for adopting these "ecologically based reference points." Maryland has been a leader on menhaden conservation at ASMFC, and it will need to continue in that role if this important step is to be taken.
Working with Virginia
Menhaden are a key part of the "forage base" in the Bay that includes other small fish like anchovies, spot, and silversides as well as invertebrates like blue crabs and grass shrimp. The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a commitment by the states to better manage the forage base available as food for predatory species in the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland and Virginia will have to work closely on this commitment together with their state and federal partners. The payoff will be a more balanced and healthy food web.
Implement the 2010 Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Plan by restoring self-sustaining oyster reef systems in three tributaries and building Maryland oyster aquaculture capacity sufficient to provide a viable alternative to wild harvest.
Self-Sustaining Oyster Reefs
Oysters filter the Bay and remove pollutant nitrogen, and oyster reefs provide habitat for many valuable species. In 2010, Maryland adopted a landmark plan for restoring oysters to the Bay.
Under the plan, 25 percent of Maryland's viable natural oyster bars became sanctuaries from harvest so they could be restored and fill the important ecological role that oysters play in the Bay ecosystem. The Plan has provided a solid basis for restoration efforts being undertaken by the state along with federal agencies and private organizations like CBF.
Concurrently, President Obama's 2009 President's Executive Order 13508 directing the federal government to take a leadership role in the Bay restoration effort led state and federal agencies to focus their resources on restoring networks of self-sustaining oyster reefs in target tributaries. This work is proceeding in the harvest sanctuaries established under Maryland's 2010 plan. The states and federal government have committed to restoring oysters in 10 tributaries Baywide by 2025. Restoration will be considered "complete" when a set of science-based criteria is met for the oyster reefs in each tributary. CBF believes that with a continued strong commitment to oyster restoration, sanctuary reefs in three Maryland tributaries can achieve these criteria during the next four years.
In addition, Maryland's 2010 plan established an intent to develop oyster aquaculture as a valuable industry and an alternative to the harvest of wild oysters. Laws and regulations have been changed to make it easier to lease areas of the Bay for oyster farming. Programs for teaching watermen and others how to grow oysters have been established, and a revolving loan fund has been set up. While creating a whole new industry like this will take time, the immediate response has been very encouraging as many individual oyster farming businesses have been established in Maryland. An ongoing commitment by the State will be necessary to sustain and expand this budding new industry.