Crab Ranching in the Chesapeake, Hoping for Change

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The Chesapeake Bay blue crab, a tasty and valuable crustacean, is in big trouble. Populations are down 80 percent. Desperate to reverse the trend, scientists are hoping to boost populations by hatching thousands of baby crabs and releasing them into the bay. Such ranching or "stock enhancement" programs have drawn criticism in the past. Skeptics say they raise false hopes and do little to boost wild populations. But the ranchers say they have improved their practices.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's that time of year again, time for a couple of wooden mallets, a roll of paper towels, a pitcher of cold beer and a steaming pile of blue crabs. Many of those crabs come from the nation's largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, but blue crabs are in trouble. Last year's count was one of the lowest ever recorded.

As NPR's John Nielsen reports, scientists turned crab ranchers are trying to bring the numbers back up.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Nobody likes getting pinched by a crab even if it's a small one. But when you're trying save a species, you get used to the pain. So says Rob Aguilar who just pulled a crab off of his left thumb.

ROB AGUILAR (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center): My grandfather would call that a love tap.

NIELSEN: Was he a crab guy?

Mr. AGUILAR: No. He was from Brooklyn.

NIELSEN: Aguilar is a blue crab expert with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Recently, he and a group of colleagues spent a long morning in the center's crab lab sorting through thousands of blue crabs raised in a nearby hatchery.

Unidentified Woman: 26. Male. See?

NIELSEN: In a few hours these tiny crabs will be thrown into the Chesapeake Bay. Eric Johnson, a biologist working at the lab, says it's part of a plan to jumpstart the bay's blue crab population, which crashed in the 1990s. Since then the number of spawning females has fallen by 84%, he says.

Mr. ERIC JOHNSON (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center): And that decline has been persistent. So we haven't seen a recovery like we see in some fisheries.

NIELSEN: Lots of different agencies have tried to reverse this trend, in part because the blue crab is still the bay's most lucrative fishery. But they haven't been able to do it. So five years ago scientists started growing reinforcement crabs at hatcheries where crab eggs and larvae don't get gobbled up by fish. When the crabs are the size of quarters, they're sent to labs like this one. Then scientists like Johnson get them ready to go back into the bay.

Mr. JOHNSON: Our goal is to release hatchery crabs into those areas that are wonderful habitats but for whatever reason aren't getting the juveniles from the wild.

NIELSEN: One of these beautiful but crab-poor habitats is on the river right in front of the crab lab. Two staffers, Alicia Young and Emily Gambling (ph), have just motored out and started flinging crabs into the water.

(Soundbite of boat idling)

Ms. ALICIA YOUNG (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center): Go. Go be free.

NIELSEN: Stocking programs like this one have an iffy reputation with the collegesm partly because there's no hard proof that they really do jumpstart wild populations. But Anson Hines, director of the research center, says this program is different. For one thing, every single one of these hatchery crabs has been tagged so that researchers can check up on them.

Mr. ANSON HINES (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center): So the unique aspect of this project is the testing of the phatados crabs that are going into the wild.

NIELSEN: Across the river, scientists in wetsuits are trudging through waist deep water. They're checking up on tagged crabs that were released last summer.

Mr. JOHNSON: Eric to Mike, do you have a radio?

NIELSEN: After hauling up a net full of crabs, fish and smelly black mud, Eric Johnson waves an electronic wand over the haul. A red light flashes, marking the presence of a crab that has a tiny magnetic tag in one of its legs.

Mr. JOHNSON: So he's just getting ready to come out of that shell. He, or in this case, a she.

NIELSEN: Johnson says the hatchery crabs are doing pretty well in the limited areas where they've been reintroduced. But the question of whether they'll help rebuild the entire bay's crab population is still open. He wants to see pregnant hatchery crabs show up at the mouth of the bay, for instance. That's where wild crabs go to lay their eggs in the sea grass beds.

Mr. JOHNSON: It'll be wonderful.

NIELSEN: Well I'm rooting for them.

Mr. JOHNSON: Cause they're yummy?

NIELSEN: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: If they weren't good to eat, they'd just be ornery.

NIELSEN: Johnson says the staff of the Easton Lab loves the taste of crab but that's not why they're trying so hard. For most of them the fight to save the wild blue crab is essentially a fight to save the Chesapeake Bay.

Don Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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