Chesapeake Bay crabber Paul Kellam has advice for the teenage boys who help tend his traps every summer: You better have a backup plan.
It's an anxious summer for watermen harvesting the Chesapeake's best-loved seafood, the blue crab. The way some see it, the crabbing business here isn't just dying. It's already dead.
Crabs have thrived in the bottom muck of the Chesapeake and its tributaries even as centuries of overfishing harmed oysters, fish and other species in the nation's largest estuary. Now blue crabs are in trouble, too, and when they go, a way of life is sure to go with them.
“There was a time when crabbers were only out here from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now, it's about all we have left,” says Kellam, 53, steering his 30-year-old rig “Christy” out of the Potomac River and onto the bay.
The bay's blue crab stock is down about 65 percent since 1990 due to overfishing and water pollution, according to Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers. The states have imposed steep cuts on this year's female crab harvest, aiming to reduce the number of crabs taken by more than a third.
For Kellam and his neighbors in southern Maryland, where the working rigs and crab picking houses that sustained these communities for generations have been replaced by yachts and vacation homes, hopes are dim that the blue crabs will ever come back.
“It's looking worse every year,” says Bob McKay, who at 74 is the oldest working waterman in St. Mary's County. He still sells crabs out of a shed in his yard but doubts the industry will live much longer than he does. “I don't know what the solution could be.”
Watermen have turned to real estate and automobile repair. They've opened seafood restaurants and bakeries. Those who still rely on crabbing are further hurt by a double punch of higher fuel costs and an economic downturn that's meant fewer consumers dropping up to $200 on a bushel of crabs.
“People don't have the disposable income. They're just not buying,” says Kellam, who spends up to $150 a day on diesel, which costs about $5 a gallon at a nearby marina.
There was a time when Chesapeake watermen made their living off the winter oyster harvest, using hand tongs and later power dredges to supply most of the world's oysters.
But disease and over-harvesting nearly wiped out Chesapeake oysters in the 1980s, and despite millions invested in restoration, they've never recovered. Scientists estimate the Chesapeake now contains about 1 percent of the oysters it once did.
After the oyster industry collapsed, watermen looked to hardy blue crabs to make up the slack. But the next generation may not have another option.
Even scientists who called for the harvest reductions say overfishing isn't entirely to blame.
The main culprit is water pollution and soil runoff from development throughout a watershed that is home to 10 million people. Excess nutrients wash into the Chesapeake, causing algae blooms and choking the native plant life that crabs rely on for food and habitat. In the summer, large swaths of the Chesapeake contain so little oxygen that scientists call them “dead zones,” because few critters can live there.
Maryland and Virginia officials have responded to the watermen's plight by asking the federal government for a disaster declaration that would free up about $20 million to subsidize crabbers and seafood processors until blue crabs rebound.