Marylanders could have an easier time finding — and affording — local crabs this summer, a survey of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population suggests.
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.
Maryland Blue Crabs are a classic example of a common pool resource. A local delicacy, Blue Crabs have historically been overharvested in the Chesapeake Bay due to open access of the water of the Chesapeake. If the Chesapeake were privately owned (which I am not advocating for, but using as an example of what proper management of the Blue Crab stock would look like), the private owner would harvest Blue Crabs in such a way as to ensure sustainable populations of crabs year after year. Because the Bay is not privately owned, but rather anyone can access the Bay and the Blue Crab fishery, race to extract crabs before their competitors. The result is low crab populations, high crab prices, and unhappy Baltimorons.
Here's a graph from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science representing Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab harvest since 1990:
A noticeable trend. Part of that trend is due to overfishing, but part is due to regulation of the fishery. In order to grow Blue Crab populations, and increase harvests, it is necessary to regulate the fishery to restrict harvests. The irony in restricting harvest is that it will eventually increase harvest. Absent regulation, the sustainable Blue Crab harvest is low (and possibly zero), because open-access overfishing will lead to smaller populations and smaller growth rates. With regulation, the crab population can be maintained at higher levels, thus increasing the potential annual harvest.
That seems to be what is going on now:
[State officials] credit favorable weather and past harvest restrictions for a second straight year of strong crab population growth.
"We fully anticipate a robust crab season this year," said Dave Blazer, fisheries survey director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
And of course with good news comes calls to loosen harvest restrictions:
Officials plan to explore whether the increasing numbers should prompt regulators to loosen harvest restrictions or lengthen the crabbing season.
"We are in a much better place than we were," said Thomas Miller, director of the state's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. But he said the crab population isn't yet "up to consistent levels of abundance that will support a sustainable fishery into the long term."
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.
"We have to understand whether this brings the population ... above a threshold which suggests it's no longer overfished," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
In coming weeks, state scientists will continue to analyze the data gathered in the survey.
Nevertheless, increasing populations may mean that economists have it right, and regulating the commons to maximize long term economic profit will actually increase Blue Crab populations more than biologists and conservationists would recommend. Afterall, as John said back in 2005: Economists are better fish conservationists than biologists. As John put it:
So, imagine an unregulated fishery. Boats fish until there is no more profit to be earned. This occurs when the catch, revenues, and stock of fish are at low points. Fishers don't make much money. Biologists try to improve on this by regulating for the "maximum sustainable yield" (MSY) MSY is the maximum catch that can occur every year. In effect, MSY maximizes revenues.
When economists enter the picture they scratch their heads and wonder why biologists regulate to maximize revenues instead of profits. In other words, why do biologists ignore the costs of fishing? Economists promote the "optimal sustainable yield" (OSY) where the effort level is set where the difference between revenues and costs is maximized. As it turns out, the OSY effort level is usually below the MSY effort level. Lower effort leads to less catch and healthier fish stocks.
That is why I think I can get away with saying that economists are better fish conservationists than biologists.