March 4, 2009

Chesapeake Bay’s Crab Population In Danger

Watermen in Chesapeake Bay are struggling to make a living in the region that was once home to one of the most bountiful fisheries in the US.

As early as 1993, the Bay was credited with about half of the country's blue crab harvest, according to the AP. But a development boom has resulted in declining catches and the US Commerce Department declared the fishery a federal disaster last September. As a result, Maryland and Virginia were forced to shut down the stream for fishing until spring.

Now, some watermen have turned to taking jobs retrieving abandoned crab traps from the Bay at a wage of about $300 a day as they wait until it reopens in March.

"We're not trying to tear the Bay up. We're just trying to make a living off a fishery that's been going for more than 100 years," waterman Spencer Headley told the AP.

"Why all of a sudden is it a disaster?"

Since the region has boomed in new developments, some 16.6 million people now live in its watershed. An average of 439 more people move to the region each day, said the AP.

This growth translates into more traffic and more urban developments taking the place of forests and farmland, the impacts of which can be seen in Sligo Creek, where a stream picks up trace amounts of pollutants from fertilizers, pet feces, motor oil and silt.

Water from the creek is exposed to sewage from farms and treatment plants. The fertilizers contain nitrogen and phosphorus, which algae blooms feed from, effectively taking oxygen from the water and killing clams and worms from which the blue crab receives its nourishment.

The 2007 catch was the worst in recorded history, and last year the catch was even worse in Virginia and only slightly better in Maryland, according to the AP.

"The Bay is now degraded to the point that its basic ability to withstand even low levels of pollution is in jeopardy," said Naval Academy professor Howard Ernst.

State governments and the Environmental Protection Agency have a $6 billion 25-year plan to clean the region, but its critics say it has failed to reach its goals.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group, sued the EPA last month to force it to set a firm cap on pollutants. The group is heartened that new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised to make the Bay cleanup a priority, according to the AP.

"We certainly are hearing the right words," said foundation president Will Baker. "But to be honest, we have heard those words for 30, 35 years and what we need to see is action."


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