April 30, 2010

Spiky with Crabs.

The excitement was palatable.

“It's the best news in 10 years.”
--Ann Pesiri Swanson, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission

“For something completely different -- good news about the Chesapeake Bay.”
--The Washington Post

“Scientists claim this is a success story, standing out in the Chesapeake’s grim history of over-fishing and pollution.”
--The Washington Post

“There are a few days when you can actually stand up in front of your neighbors and say, ‘this part of the Chesapeake Bay is getting better,’ this is one of those days.”
--MD Gov. Martin O'Malley

“This is great news for everyone who makes their living by crabbing and for everyone who enjoys genuine Chesapeake Bay crab cakes.”
--VA Gov. Robert F. McDonnell

The news was good indeed. Officials in Maryland and Virginia recently reported that after being in decline for a decade – the Chesapeake’s blue crabs are making an extraordinary comeback. The Chesapeake crab population has more than doubled in the past two years, reaching its highest level since 1997, as determined by a winter dredge survey where researchers dragged a metal scoop through the muddy bay bottom to count the number of crabs found in hibernation.

Even from Tanzania, where the taste and smell of the Chesapeake crab remains all but a distant memory, I have received this news very warmly. Any time I have lived overseas, one of the things I have most missed from home is the messy, laid back summertime tradition of lining up with friends at a picnic table to attack a pile of steaming, Old Bay-spiced crabs, and washing them down with a cold pitcher of draft beer.
Here in Tanzania, the abounding presence of crabs on the beaches and shorelines have served as a nice reminder of home. When the tide goes out on the beaches, so do we, seeking to uncover those buggers tucked into every nook and cranny along the jagged edges of the coral reef. The crabs provide much entertainment between their sideways crawl and their beady eyes surveying the landscape. When we sit on beachfront bars in the evenings, we can hear the telltale pitter patter of panicky crabs scurrying about.
The chief reason for this recent victory within the Chesapeake Bay is a set of limits placed on crab harvests in 2008, aimed at protecting female crabs. If spared from being turned into a popular regional dish – she-crab soup – female crabs can produce millions of baby crabs apiece. The new rules allowed many more female crabs to survive. Yet, as with the introduction of most regulations, short-term losses were absorbed by some to achieve the longer-term victory for many. In this case, the regulations seeking to protect female crabs cut deeply in the income of some watermen and seafood dealers along the Chesapeake. Luckily these short term sacrifices will allow the watermen who make their living off of Chesapeake Bay crab harvests to potentially recoup some of their losses in the coming years.

While I welcome good news from home about the positive effects of visionary public policies, this news also forces me to admit that Tanzania is trailing in terms of effective regulation of their fishing industry. Here, dynamite and other illegal fishing practices continue to pose major environmental threats. While they may be few in numbers, the dynamite fishers have far reaching consequences. Such illegal practices cause widespread negative impacts, including threatening the existence of various ocean populations, damaging Tanzanian reefs and their long-term productivity, deterring tourism investors, and eroding the coastal environment, reducing fish catches and affecting the economic livelihoods of coastal residents. Despite engaging in highly illegal practices, dynamite fishers act above the law, an attitude reinforced by the fact that the government continues to fail to take any action against them, largely because they are members of influential families or are otherwise well-connected in Tanzania’s leading political circles.

In an ironic twist, sometimes successful conservation practices here only serve to further induce illegal fishing practices, including dynamite fishing, as conservation efforts increase the fish stock in an area. Researchers on this practice recommend a major initiative is needed to develop a zero-tolerance approach to dynamite fishing on the part of fishers and local and national leaders. One that will shame the dynamiters through peer pressure, by fully implementing appropriate sanctions and penalties, and garnering public recognition and support for the work of the enforcement agencies.

Below is a clandestine footage of dynamite fishermen in action that I found on youtube. This video  demonstrates the boldness with which dynamite fishermen flout the law given the proximity to Dar es Salaam's shoreline where these illegal activities are taking place.

Photo Credit:
1) http://www.chesapeake-bay.org/index.php/photo-galleries/chesapeake-bay-seafood/
2) source unknown
3) source unknown
5) Andrei Sinioukov