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Watermen Forced To Adjust To Blue Crab Rules

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Watermen Forced To Adjust To Blue Crab Rules

Environment

Watermen Forced To Adjust To Blue Crab Rules

Watermen Forced To Adjust To Blue Crab Rules

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Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is putting the iconic blue crab in danger. To keep the crab population from shrinking further, Maryland and Virginia have limited their harvests. Already hurting, watermen have to deal with new regulations.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Water pollution is killing a symbol of the Chesapeake Bay. Bad water quality is threatening the blue crab and the fishing communities that rely on it and that includes people on the island visited by NPR's Jack Zahora.

(Soundbite of a ferry's engine)

JACK ZAHORA: The Island Belle Two roars in the Tangier Sound in the southern part of the Chesapeake Bay. The ferry is on its way to Smith Island which sits exactly on the border of Maryland and Virginia. The water of the bay is blue with a slight green tint in certain areas. It looks clean, but the problem lies below the water's surface.

Ms. STEPHANIE REYNOLDS (Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation): Twenty-five or so feet is a potentially dead zone area.

ZAHORA: Stephanie Reynolds is a scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a group that lobbies for regulations to protect the bay's water life. A big problem here is dead zones, areas where excess nitrogen, phosphorous build up from pollution coming downstream. Algae eat off the extra nutrients, and in the process, use up all the water's oxygen. Reynolds says in this way, we should think of the body of water as a giant bowl.

Ms. REYNOLDS: All of us have (unintelligible) there in the higher sides of the bowl, but everything we do rushes right down into the mid-bottom of that bowl, and that's where the blue crabs live, even right here in the middle of Tangier Sound where we can't even see a single car much less a single smokestack.

ZAHORA: Last year, the crab population was at a record low. Maryland and Virginia hope to get the population up to twice the current level, so the states enacted emergency legislation to limit the crab harvest to half of what was caught last year, and Reynolds agrees.

Ms. REYNOLDS: We want to make sure that we're setting up a long-term sustainable fishery and at the same time improving the water quality, and that's the formula that we think is most likely to bring back the blue crabs.

ZAHORA: That includes a prohibition on catching female crabs and individual catch limits for the watermen.

(Soundbite of a ferry horn)

ZAHORA: As the ferry drifts up to the shore, you immediately find out what the watermen think of the new rules. A sign reads, 'Support our heritage, not the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.'

(Soundbite of water)

Mr. EDDIE EVANS (Waterman): We try and catch crabs in what we call the (unintelligible), bring them in and put them in these tanks and wait for them to shed their shell and (unintelligible) soft crabs.

ZAHORA: Seventy-year-old Eddie Evans speaks with the quasi-Elizabethan accent that the islanders have maintained over generations. Inside this fishing shanty, Evans tends to his crab harvest, kept in a couple of dozen sinks with the tabs left on. Evans can fit about 2,000 crabs in these tanks, but he doesn't think he'll reach that number this year.

Mr. EVANS: A waterman is not going to stay there and catch the last crab, last fish, last oyster. When they get so scarce, he can't show a decent profit, he's going to go do something else.

ZAHORA: And many on the island are doing something else. Some have even moved to the mainland to find jobs. Evans says his grandson quit catching crabs after finding out the number of bushels he could catch this season.

Mr. EVANS: His limit was one bushel per day. You're catching one bushel (unintelligible) a day for $20, and your fuel alone would cost you a hundred or better.

ZAHORA: State officials recognize the new regulations are hard on the watermen. They're even giving experienced fishers a stipend to supplement lost income. And many watermen conceed that if the pollution problem isn't resolved, there will be nothing left to catch. But whether or not the crab harvest gets smaller due to pollution or regulations, the watermen are afraid that as the blue crabs disappear, so will they. Jack Zahora, NPR News.

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