Crustacean Crisis: Encourage Experts to Come Together

By Sophia Chirico

The Chesapeake Bay

Many can agree the health of the Chesapeake Bay is deteriorating. Until about 1950, the Chesapeake Bay accounted for over 75% of the total reported U.S. harvest of blue crabs. Since that time, there has been a slow decline in the region’s market share to an average of less than 50% to as low as about 35%. The reduction in crab population is apparent to everyone, not just scientists. Watermen, local business owners, and crab lovers alike have been watching this decline, as it has serious implications; not only does it affect the livelihoods of thousands of commercial watermen in the area, but it also affects all those that interact with the Chesapeake Bay.

Seafood from the Chesapeake Bay serves thousands of people every year. The Bay, as an ecosystem, has intrinsic value; hundreds of people use the Bay for recreational activities every year including swimming, fishing, crabbing, and boating. I grew up near the Chesapeake Bay and enjoy crabbing, swimming, kayaking, and rowing. I recently moved to White Stone, Virginia, a small rural town in the Northern Neck. The deterioration of the Bay is much more apparent here and I see first-hand how community members are affected.

As a scientist, I have conducted research trying to understand relationships between organisms and their role in the Chesapeake Bay. I have examined how native species will be affected by competition, resource limitation, spatial variation of aquaculture, and climate change. I want a full understanding of the web that is the Chesapeake Bay, but to get a full understanding, it seems best to rely on my research, as well as the knowledge of others, specifically those outside academia.

 I spoke with Lisa Carol, a generational commercial waterman in White Stone about how she has been affected by the ongoing deterioration. Lisa shared concerns she has been receiving, not from the fishermen, but from her neighbors. They go to her and ask, “where did all the crabs go?” People used to be able to crab from their docks behind their homes, but crabs aren’t there anymore.

And while crabs are becoming harder and harder to find; customers ask her to search more and more. She recalls customers begging for crabs, encouraging her to look outside the Bay, in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, the Gulf, just to meet demand. She laments, “being a commercial waterman, there’s this label that is stuck, that people have put on me, that says, you’re bad for the Bay”. There is a stigma that commercial watermen over harvest seafood and cause severe reductions in the populations. Lisa rebutts, “No. I feed people. I feed mass amounts of people. I’m just working the demand for the seafood”. Fishermen work to meet the demand, and so blame should not simply lie with them for the deterioration of stocks. While harvest does affect the stocks, the ever-increasing demand is the cause. Many watermen, understanding their role in the ecosystem, work to preserve the health of the whole system and therefore maintain the populations of all species.

Roles in the Community

The challenge is learning to work sustainably, taking actions to preserve the health of the Bay and the populations of native species, while providing food for people. Based on population assessments, scientists and resource managers determined the blue crab population was at risk of collapse. Policymakers implemented regulations that restricted the harvests of watermen in an effort to give the population a chance to recover.

However, the enactment of blue crab regulations ended a lot of dialogue between watermen and state resource managers. Lack of support from watermen reinforces the public image of watermen being “self-interested, greedy, and irrationally opposed to efforts to save the blue crab and ultimately their livelihood”. Watermen reject these regulations, as they believe it perpetuates the narrative that their actions are causing the deterioration of the stock, and they believe that other actions should be taken that will be more beneficial. Lisa explains that watermen enjoy working with scientists, but not with politicians because they “just want to talk and don’t listen”. She says that they are so focused on regulating commercial fishermen that they ignore bigger problems, like pollution and land development. 

This brings forth the idea of the Anthropocene ; loosely defined as the time and ways that humans have interacted with nature and their environment. There are many ways that people define the Anthropocene, some start with the first records of humans, other argue that it begins with the start of agriculture. Regardless, to many of its most prominent proponents, the term Anthropocene carries the connotation of human responsibility for the environment rather than asserting control over it. In the Chesapeake Bay, many watermen have that same view; they see themselves as stewards, responsible for the maintenance and care of the ecosystem so that they can sustainably interact with the bountiful natural system.

The Anthropocene can be seen as the apotheosis of waste. Anthropologists focus on how waste and its management can produce new cultural forms and political demands. At the end of the day, waste never disappears completely and often waste products remain active in ways that managers and users often don’t anticipate.  Humans produce waste every day. That waste affects the environment, often in ways that people don’t even see, but watermen are seeing the effects.

Lisa and other generational fishermen in White Stone have seen homes being built all around them and the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides. In conjunction with that expansion, they have seen the disappearance of a lot of life in the Bay. Lisa firmly believes, through years of observation and experience, that land development and pollution are the root causes of the deterioration of the wildlife, and these are the issues that require the most attention, and would reap the greatest reward.  She compares fish to people in many ways, “Humans, they want a place to go, they wants a beautiful place to call home, and you know, is our seafood the same way.” By encouraging the recovery of the ecosystem and improving the habitat for aquatic life, watermen believe that those species will return and thrive.


“We can come together as conservation groups, marine biologists, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, homeowners, businesses, the whole nine yards, and make sure that we have the best Bay. And that’s my mission”                                                                                    ­­­­­­­                        _______________________

Ecosystem and Environment

A healthier habitat has broad ecosystem effects; Lisa explains that when she is looking at seafood, she can learn so much about the quality of the seafood from the contents of the individual’s stomach. She explains there’s a difference in quality between a fish that’s been eating shrimp and crab, and a fish that’s just been eating tiny little fish.  Lisa’s understanding of the value of protecting the ecosystem as a whole accentuates and highlights an example of a multispecies story. This perspective reveals interdependencies with the natural world and how humans are intertwined. 

As a waterman, Lisa cares about delivering the freshest, and best quality seafood she can provide.  But there is only so much that watermen can do on their own. Transformation and protection of the Bay will take everyone, “Everybody touches this bay, no matter what you do, no matter who you are, anything. Everything touches this bay, and we all have an importance to make sure that it gives back.” Scientists, watermen, homeowners, legislators, lawyers, everyone has a role to play, and by having more roundtable discussions, Lisa believes that real progress can be made. 

Natural Beauty

Being in nature, and appreciating the complex ecosystem allows people to understand the value in protecting it. When people want to protect nature, their actions change. Lisa talks about how she’s seen the area around her home change since she was young. So many more houses have gone up as people continue moving into the area; and with that she’s seen changes in the Bay, “you might not think that your little bit of Roundup or you little bit of hair color makes an impact, but it does, because collectively all those little things add up”. She recalls trying to convince her neighbors to stop clearing land and using fertilizer and Roundup to make their lawns pristine and green. She wonders, “why aren’t trees pretty? Why isn’t natural pretty? Why is makeup pretty? Why is fake green grass pretty? We need to market that natural is beautiful!”

In the past few months, I have taken several trips to White Stone, Virginia, and spent many hours sitting by the water. I have seen dozens of species that call the Chesapeake Bay home, from bald eagles and deer, to cownose rays and dolphins. I have watched watermen at work at White Stone Oyster Company, and on the water maintaining oyster farms. Through my time there, not only have I seen and learned that the watermen work and understand the role they play in the preservation of the ecosystem, but I have also come to love and appreciate being in such a beautiful, natural, space.  

            In some ways, Lisa and I are two sides of the same coin, but we approach the Bay differently. I am a scientist, and I conduct research and analyze data. Lisa is a waterman; she catches, prepares, sells, and cooks seafood in the community. Though we have different backgrounds, we both strive to do everything we can to revive the Bay. Both of us want to work with others, share knowledge, information, and science, to inform the most effective policies that will be most beneficial to the Chesapeake Bay and all those that rely on and benefit from such amazing nature.

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