Blue crab woes show how government officials are failing to clean up the Chesapeake Bay


Recent good news about the rebound in the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has been overshadowed by more recent news in a study from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimating that the blue crab population is in decline. There are no definitive conclusions about the root causes of this decline, but there are candidates that do not require further research (“A bad year for crabs can still be a good year for the Chesapeake Bay”, May 24).

These are all long-term issues that have not received the attention they deserve. Worse still, these causes have been compounded by an abysmal lack of action by a range of elected and appointed government decision makers. These decision makers, trusted by the public to do the right thing at the right time, have individually and collectively failed to do their job. Their inaction is Exhibit A of the realization that when all is said and done, a lot is said but almost nothing is done.

The first issue requiring less talk and more action is ensuring that the Back River and Patapsco sewage treatment plants in Baltimore are in good repair and operating efficiently. While the Back River plant is now under the operational control of the Maryland Environmental Service, it continues a long practice of dumping untreated sewage into the watershed. The Patapsco plant, which may soon also be under MES control, also continues a long practice of dumping untreated sewage into the watershed. This is not only a practice that has a negative impact on the crab population, but also on public health. So much so that the Maryland Department of Environment and the Maryland Department of Health issued a warning to the public to avoid contact with water in Back River. The advisory is an attempt to avoid human contact with high levels of bacteria which can lead to gastrointestinal illness, skin infections and eye infections. That says a lot about the health of the number of crabs harvested around the Chesapeake Bay.

The time has now come to take all the necessary steps to complete the correction of the operational problems of the two wastewater treatment plants. It’s time to end the seemingly endless discussions about whether the results of bay improvement efforts are considered to determine whether a glass of water is half full or half empty. The focus should be on the water in the glass and how best to make it cleaner.

The second issue requiring less talk and more action is the nutrient laden silt, debris and waste trapped behind the Conowingo Dam. Often, when there is heavy rain or snow, the gates of the dams are opened to allow these materials to flow into the bay. Dredging to remove this material would solve this problem.

The third issue requiring less talk and more action is the number of blue catfish and cownose rays that relentlessly prey on crabs (as well as white clams, razor clams and small oysters). Those who regularly work on the water are resigned to the reality that these two predators are here to stay. That doesn’t mean they can’t be controlled. Freshly caught wild blue catfish is very tasty. There is a growing consumer demand for them. Crews are ready, willing and able to harvest blue catfish to meet consumer demand. There is only one thing preventing this from happening. It’s politics. Some members of Congress outside of Maryland have successfully demanded costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary federal inspections of blue catfish harvested from the Chesapeake Bay. These inspections are designed to limit competition with southern catfish harvesters. We need the Maryland congressional delegation to aggressively pursue the repeal of this unjust mandate. When it comes to cownose rays, those who manage all of Maryland’s marine life need to take immediate action on a plan to address this issue.

It’s time to end the seemingly endless discussions about whether Chesapeake Bay improvement efforts are a glass of water half full or half empty. The focus should be on the water in the glass and how best to make it cleaner. Members of the Delmarva Fisheries Association are committed to working with all major stakeholders in the bay who share our commitment to sustainable wild fishing and our way of life.

Now is the time to work together to give voice to meaningful and timely action on the above issues.

—Robert Newberry, Crumpton

The author is president of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, Inc.

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