Working with watermen to restore vital Chesapeake Bay fisheries

Blue Crab

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America and is one of the most biologically productive areas on the East Coast. Roughly 200 miles long, 4 miles wide at its narrowest and 24 miles wide at its widest, the Bay has a watershed that extends across more than 64,000 square miles, encompassing portions of six states (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia.

The Chesapeake ecosystem is incredibly complex, home to an impressive diversity of habitats, plants and animals, and over 350 species of fish and shellfish. Most of these fish, both resident and migratory, use the Bay for a portion of their lifecycles.

Frequently called “an immense protein factory,” the Chesapeake has historically ranked in the top tier of the nation’s seafood production.

The challenge

Managing the Bay’s fisheries for both environmental and economic sustainability is a critical step toward protecting the important role these fish populations play within the Bay’s complex ecosystem. Of these fisheries, the blue crab holds immense ecological, economic and cultural significance.

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

The commercial blue crab fishery is the largest and most valuable Bay fishery in Maryland and Virginia, landing roughly 80 million pounds of crab annually, Baywide; but its health has been erratic in recent years.

Annual Baywide population surveys point to a Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock that is highly dynamic and inconsistent. In 2008, a Federal fisheries disaster was declared due to record low crab abundance and dramatic harvest reductions were implemented. Despite subsequent population increases, overall abundance regressed in 2012 due to a multitude factors, including poor management.

Source: Maryland DNR

The blue crab life cycle is delicate and its Chesapeake Bay home is complex. Widespread predation and unpredictable migratory patterns are compounded by fluctuating weather and temperatures and variable harvest pressures. Both states deploy an array of regulations and restrictions governing commercial blue crab harvest, yet they have proven insufficient, leading to overcapitalization, excessive effort and year-to-year uncertainty in the fishery.

Equipping watermen and managers with the right tools

Video: Partnering with Maryland Watermen in Electronic Catch Accounting Pilot


In Maryland, EDF is working with the state Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and industry leaders to improve accountability within the commercial blue crab industry. By partnering with watermen and dealers, we are working to improve harvest monitoring and accountability using smartphones, tablets and personal computers for daily harvesting report. More timely, accurate, and verifiable harvest data will enable fishery managers to move Maryland’s blue crab fishery one step closer to a sustainable future and is a critical piece in reforming how blue crabs are managed in Maryland.


In Virginia, EDF is working with industry leaders and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to identify priorities and implement solutions to management shortfalls in the commercial crabbing sector. Crabbers badly want to return to a year-round fishery, which provides flexibility, convenience, improved safety and consistent supply for local markets. EDF is also working with partners in Virginia to expand electronic harvest reporting and increase dealer participation in harvest verification.

Industry leaders in Virginia are beginning to look closer at how market-based tools can help restore a year-round fishery, as well as addressing industry concerns regarding overcapacity and unstable revenues. EDF is working to assist watermen by sharing expertise and resources and facilitating dialogue among watermen and managers on tailored solutions to Virginia’s crabbing concerns.

Maryland Striped Bass

After years of challenges with derby-based striped bass fishing in Maryland, including conflicts between gear sectors, illegal harvesting and latent effort, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) determined that management changes were necessary to comply with Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) allocations. As a result, in 2014 MDNR transitioned the fishery to a dual management system, offering Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) as an option for all striped bass gear sectors for the first time. During public meetings, EDF provided input on how successful ITQs have been developed and managed in other regions, including elements that could work in Maryland’s portion of a coast-wide fishery.


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