End crab fishery, plant trees

Guest Commentary by Dan Rodricks

Reprinted with permission of the author

Dan Rodricks

I think it's great that the governor of Maryland and our two U.S. senators want the feds to declare the Chesapeake Bay crab fishery a disaster. But before we get all gooey about how politicians really care about the bay, crabs, the watermen and their way of life, let's ask a question: What took so long?

And one more question: Why still a limited harvest and not a full-blown moratorium?

Politicians at all levels suffer from homopechephobia. (You don't have to look it up. It's a term from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society; it refers to fear of fishermen, or the fishing industry lobby.)

In Maryland and Virginia, we see a variation called Layes- Ummderlowe Syndrome. From the French for watermen, les hommes de l'eau, it refers to an irrational fear that the diminishing number of watermen will be able to unseat politicians who attempt to prevent them from harvesting every last bit of marine life.

In 1995, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation characterized the blue crab population as "perilously close to collapse," and it called for a year-round deep-water sanctuary - a no-catch zone.

In 1998, experts at the Chesapeake Bay Program said watermen had "fully exploited" the blue crab population, and Maryland officials reported the worst harvest on record. If you don't have a watch, that was a decade ago.

No Maryland politician I know has had the guts to do what was needed to save the blue crab - call for an absolute moratorium on the harvest.

Now, we are on the cusp of crustaceous collapse, and we have this call for federal disaster relief - and $15 million to provide jobs for the watermen while they take some time off from pulling pots.

But still no call for a moratorium.

All we're doing, by agreement of the governors of Maryland and Virginia, is shortening the season of harvest.

On this issue, Maryland and Virginia form a single state - the state of denial. This kind of tinkering with a diminishing wild species constitutes classic denial pathology - the patient has a serious problem and either refuses to recognize it or recognizes it but thinks a little sip now and then won't hurt.

All through the 1990s, when the crab population was stressed, the human population still took an average of 42 million bushels of crabs out of the bay annually. Aggressive harvests, combined with loss of vital bay grasses in the great crab nursery of Tangier Sound, led to this.

We've been over-harvesting crabs for years - and, by science and instinct, we knew it - but we've been too weenie to do anything about it.

And still so.

Nonetheless, the call to reduce the harvest and create new jobs for watermen, while overdue, is a necessary one. We are long past the time when we can go laissez faire about the commercial harvest of a natural resource. People who despise government regulation and love crab cakes can't have it both ways, and it's high time government reduced the number of human hands in this fishery - and probably permanently.

I suggested a while ago that the state turn watermen into tree planters, and I caught a lot grief about it.

The idea was to pay them to stop fishing and do something beneficial for the bay.

In this vision, they become landlubbers, shovels in hand. We send them out to Western Maryland, to Central Maryland, to the stretches of Cecil County and the Eastern Shore. Have them plant thousands of trees on land, public and private, along waters that flow to the bay.

Too many creeks on farms are still as they were from Colonial times - stripped of their arboreal canopies and degraded by runoff and cow manure. Create leafy buffers along streams, and you improve water quality there and, eventually, downstream in the bay.

This kind of thing could be going on across the nation, if funds were available for the establishment of a green work force. That's what's being advocated by Green For All, a campaign to get local, state and federal governments to fund job training and new opportunities in an emerging "green economy," particularly for the nation's poor. They want to lift people out of poverty and fight pollution at the same time.

Bill McKibben, the fine writer on topics environmental, suggests in a recent edition of The Nation that we create a new publicly funded work force like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal. The CCC planted 3 billion trees during its relatively brief life.

"For my money," McKibben writes, "that's the kind of work that needs doing now, as we face a crisis even greater than the Depression: the quick unraveling of the planet's climate system in the face of our endless emissions of carbon dioxide. ...

"Imagine an army ... trained to insulate American homes and stick solar photovoltaic panels on their roofs. ... Imagine them laying trolley lines back down in our main cities or helping erect windmills across the plains. All this work would have real payoff - and none of it can be outsourced. You're not sending your house to China so they can stuff it with cellulose."

In Maryland, of course, we've outsourced a big chunk of our crab supply - to the Gulf Coast, to Southeast Asia. If we want to bring that industry back, we've got to shut it down for a while - completely. End the harvest. Plant trees.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.

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