Quite a Catch

A concerted effort to rebuild the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population has preserved a way of life here that is as ‘summah’ as it gets.

Photography by Jereme Thaxton.

We leave the dock at Tangier Island before dawn, under a full moon with a huge halo. It’s mid-October, and the Chesapeake Bay is as still as a pond. For 20 minutes, we sit in the 37-foot boat’s tiny, warm cabin until we reach Pocomoke Sound. We step out to take up our positions near the stern on the starboard side, which has its own throttle and steering. Dan Dize, in orange overalls over a long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans and rubber boots, uses a powerful spotlight and a GPS to locate the first crab pot float. The light attracts a flight of white terns that dance and dive like ghosts, feeding on something in the water. Dize doesn’t know what and doesn’t care; he’s fully focused on catching the maximum amount of crabs he can for a buyer that will leave the Tangier dock at 2 p.m.

He leans over and extends a gaff to bring in the first floater. He wraps the rope around a silently spinning winch, which hauls the crab pot to the surface. It’s a box-shaped trap made of green chicken wire, about three feet wide and two feet deep. There are two holes to let the undersized crabs get out. He pulls the pot out of the water, opens a side and shakes out the dozen or so crabs inside into a shallow tub called a table. It’s the end of the season, when the crabs’ colors are brightest: the claws of the males, known as jimmies, are a striking navy blue and those of the females, called sooks, are tipped in bright orange-red. Their first reflex is to clamp onto anything they can, and it’s usually each other, to the point where a dozen crabs will form a tangled, unyielding mass. Their claws are stronger than their shells, so the tiny sound of crunching exoskeleton will be in the background the whole day. The old bait, a pair of oily fish called menhadens in various states of decay, fall out onto the gunwale’s ledge, where a flip of the hand sends them into our wake. Dize flips the cage, reaches into it to pry out a last holdout with a hand covered by a thick black glove, slides in a couple of fresh menhadens, closes the cage and tosses it overboard. The whole operation takes less time than it took you to read this paragraph.

Dize is 33, blond with close-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. He is one of perhaps 250 remaining Chesapeake watermen, a dwindling breed of people who live entirely off what they catch. It includes atoll dwellers and not many others, all spiritual descendants of the original hunter-gatherers. In his slow drawl, you can recognize the Elizabethan origins of the isolated islands’ communities, first settled because of their abundant waterfowl and seafood. In his friendliness and welcome, you can sense the islanders’ moral rectitude, which is reflected in Tangier’s lack of crime.

Dize should be happy. The population of Chesapeake crabs, from which he derives nearly all his income, has more than doubled over the past three years, after spending the previous decade perilously close to collapsing. That’s because the governments of Virginia and Maryland finally began curbing overfishing in 2009 and are restoring the crab population to an abundance that will shield it from cold snaps, pollution spills or even shifts in sea currents that could cause it to crash to a point where there would be so few left that they would cost more to catch than people would be prepared to pay—a state fisheries experts call commercial extinction.

But Dize is not happy at all: He chafes under the yoke of the very regulations that, by forcing him and other watermen to catch fewer crabs, have allowed the population to rebound—and prices to drop. “I don’t care how many crabs are out there,” he says with disarming frankness as we motor from one line of pots to another. “All I care is whether I can make a living catching them. And today, I’m going to get $14 a bushel,” which translates to $350 for the day’s 25-bushel take. “That doesn’t even cover my expenses.”

Rick Robins, 45, a seafood businessman who lives in Suffolk, sits with Dize on Virginia’s Crab Management Advisory Committee, a policy-recommending unit of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, but you’d think they inhabit different planets. More than anyone, Robins, who has chaired the committee since 2005, is responsible for identifying a way to reform the fishery and save the crab population from crashing.

Robins describes the situation this way: Since 1950, the Chesapeake crab population oscillated around 400 million. Because the females, which reach sexual maturity at 18 months, are extraordinarily fecund—each releases between 750,000 and 5 million larvae a year—it was possible to harvest 250 million a year and still have 400 million the next year. The mated females are the easiest to catch because they migrate each fall to the mouth of the bay in huge numbers along invisible underwater highways where watermen have been laying their pots for centuries. After spending the winter buried in mud against the cold, the females emerge in the spring, and in June release multiple batches of tiny larvae. The larvae head out to sea and return as juvenile crabs when they’re about three months old. Job done, the females head up the bay for the summer to feed before returning the following year, if they survive the gauntlet of crab pots and predators awaiting them on their journeys. Most males stay up the bay, and Dize caught only one bushel of males for every 24 bushels of females.

But in 1997, following a spate of storms that prevented the larvae from returning, the population declined to 130 million. And yet, about 100 million crabs—less than half the previous level but far too many for the newly shrunken population—were caught each year for a decade. The stock never rebounded, but the watermen were content: prices were high and they almost always knew where to find the remaining crabs.

The dwindling local supply coincided with the arrival of large amounts of pasteurized crab meat from Asia and a growing shortage of labor. Along the Virginia and Maryland tidewater shores, dozens of picking houses, where the meat was extracted by hand from cooked crabs and sold fresh by the pound, went out of business. In Crisfield, Maryland, the self-described crab capital of the world, the picking houses by the ferry landing have been replaced by condos. Only one operates now, and that one is a little way inland—and that’s just part-time.

Science-driven efforts to limit the catch before the population crashed ran into the problem King Charles I created when, for reasons that remain unclear, he split the bay in two horizontally when he carved out Maryland from Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1632. Maryland’s part has more males and Virginia’s more females. But to reduce the fishery and save the stock, whatever pain was inflicted on the two states’ watermen would have to be shared equally, and the early measures, such as reducing the workday, limiting the number of pots per license-holder, and reducing the number of licenses largely failed. The yearly take slowly decreased from 80 percent to 63 percent of the adult population, but that was still too much for it to grow back.

When Robins landed on the crab commission in 2004, he noted the dangerously low population and the ineffective efforts to get it to rebound, so he called for the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to find a solution.

Tom Miller, a Briton who heads the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons Island, was the senior scientist on the panel. He concluded that conservation efforts needed to focus on the females, whose numbers had dwindled far more than the males. “I called it the kindergarten solution,” Miller quipped during an interview at his office overlooking the bay. “Any 5-year-old can figure out that if there aren’t enough babies, you have to stop killing the mommies.”

He persuaded the panel that 30 million females needed to be spared each year, about twice the amount that were surviving the fishery at the time. “Overall, we wanted the harvest to be below 46 percent of the population,” down from 63 percent, he explains. Since three-quarters of the females are caught in Virginia, the crab commission had to find a way to make the sacrifice equitable.

With the support of the governors of both states, a spawning-season sanctuary zone was extended in time. Then, the fall season was ended earlier. That’s when about 200 million females walk up to 150 miles to the mouth of the bay and are the easiest to catch. For watermen, it’s the season-end bonus, the few weeks that bring in the cash that will keep them going for the winter.

Finally, the so-called winter dredge fishery in Virginia waters was ended entirely. It involved towing huge rakes that destroyed the bottom and killed two females for every one brought up, says Miller. In addition, many of the ones brought up are fatally injured, and their meat is only good if it’s cooked within hours and extracted in a picking house. According to Tangier Mayor James Eckridge, by the time they closed that fishery, there were only 65 active dredge boats operating from both states, down from 300 in the 1970s, largely because of the reduction in the number of picking houses.

The crab situation was so bad that the federal government allocated $30 million in emergency funding in 2009, half for each state. About $5 million of Virginia’s share went to employ the crews of those 65 dredgers to tow a different kind of equipment that snares lost crab pots whose floats have been cut off by propellers, which uselessly kill crabs for months. “There are lots of things you can do to reduce mortality in a fishery,” says Robins. “This was the first time we used all of them at once.”

The 2009 yearly winter survey of crab populations taken in 1,500 spots up and down the Chesapeake found that the restrictions worked: the female adult population had grown by 70 percent, while the male population had barely changed. In 2010, their offspring were added to the adult population, which showed that the adult female population rose from 130 million to 250 million. Overall, the number of adult crabs soared from 131 million in 2008 to 315 million in 2010.

Then in the winter of 2010-2011, nature pulled one of her nasty tricks: a cold snap killed 30 percent of the females that had burrowed in the Virginia mud, so the 2011 survey showed that the number of adults dropped from 315 million to 194 million, says Miller, the scientist.

“This is the kind of thing that’s not a problem with a healthy population, but it can wipe out a very reduced one,” he adds. “We expect the 2012 population to be much bigger.” And it is. According to the 2012 winter dredge survey results announced in April, the total population is at a 20-year high of 764 million. The goal is to have an adult population over 400 million for three years in a row, after which some of the restrictions on fishing can be eased as long as they don’t reduce the stock below that level.

Besides, says Robins, the average price Virginia fishermen got for their crabs remained stable at 93 cents a pound between 2008 and 2010, while the number of crabs caught rose by more than a third. He expects prices to go up again. “We saw that when the scallop fishery recovered,” he says. “Demand increased and now prices are at an all time high, and there’s three times more scallops being harvested now than in the 1980s.”

So why is Dan Dize complaining? “Costs,” Dize says as we take a break in the late-morning sun to eat sandwiches. “With diesel at $4 a gallon, I need $20 a bushel just to pay my expenses. I made a better living between 1998 and 2008 because my expenses were much lower.”

As we head for Tangier with 3,500 crabs tightly packed in their 25 round bushel baskets made of thinly cut wood, Dize, whose knowledge of his ancestors reaches back four generations, turns philosophical. His father is a waterman, and earlier in the day, our two boats had sided up on the Pocomoke Sound and they had exchanged pleasantries and tips for pot placement. “I’ve lived on the mainland, and I didn’t care for it,” Dize says. “But there’s no future in crabbing. You know, the average age of crabbers is 56. The kids just don’t want to do it any more; they want a steady income. A lot of crabbers on Tangier have gone to work on the tugs. This said, I may complain a lot, but truth is I wouldn’t want to do anything else. You have to love it to do it.”

If Robins is right, prices will rise to offset Dize’s expenses, and a unique culture will survive. After all, it wouldn’t be summer on the Chesapeake Bay without crabs to pick dockside as the sun glints on the water that has fed this region for so long. 

This article originally appeared in our June 2012 issue.

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