Good Environmental News from the Chesapeake

I think we could use some good news this week. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, the current blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay is one-third larger than it was at the same time in 2015:

There are more than 550 million blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, an increase of more than a third over this time last year and one of the highest counts of the past two decades, according to state officials. They credit favorable weather and past harvest restrictions for a second straight year of strong crab population growth.

This is good news. Everyone involved seems cautiously optimistic, and crab fishers have accepted the regulatory limits on catch and on seasonal female catch with seeming equanimity. Commercial blue crab fishing regulations in Maryland restrict the allowable size seasonally and restricts female crab catch on a more ad hoc basis. As the article notes, the combination of favorable weather and such regulations has been effective.

But the article also points out that this regulatory system, especially the female catch restrictions, introduces some regulatory uncertainty:

State Natural Resources officials plan to confer with watermen, conservationists and other stakeholders to consider whether changes to the length of the crabbing season or limits on harvesting female crabs are warranted. Watermen are generally limited in how many female crabs they can harvest, and they’re prohibited from harvesting any females late in the season.

Chance said watermen welcome those discussions. They have accepted new restrictions in the past with the understanding that regulations could be loosened if crab populations rebounded, he said.

Scientists, though, said changes should come only after a careful analysis. They say people shouldn’t assume the survey numbers mean the crab population can handle a bigger harvest. In 2012, for example, surveys showed a record number of juvenile crabs, but so many of them died it didn’t translate into a long-term population boom.

A system of catch shares would do a better job of managing how the crab fishers can earn a sustainable living while also having robust incentives to maintain a sufficiently reproducible female population. Maryland has not implemented catch shares for blue crab, which would create a tradable percentage of the allowable catch over a given period, although they have done so for striped bass with some success according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Years with favorable populations create an opportunity for fishers, scientists, and regulators to experiment with policies that are new to them. Catch shares have demonstrated success in many different types of fisheries around the world; now is an opportune time to implement them in the Chesapeake blue crab fishery.