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    Blue crabs melt away

    Biologists don't know what's causing the decline, which has commercial crabbers fearing for their livelihood.

    [Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
    Blue crab catches declined 29 percent on the Gulf Coast in the past four years.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 20, 2003


    ON LITTLE COCKROACH BAY -- After the morning fog burned off, Gus Muench took his 19-foot-boat out to check his traps. One by one he hauled them up, dumping the dripping contents into a cooler.

    From each square wire enclosure tumbled perhaps a dozen conch shells, a few angelfish or catfish and, finally, three or four blue crabs waving their azure claws.

    The blue crabs, a succulent mainstay of Southern seafood menus, are Muench's money crop. There was a time when his traps would be packed with them. No more.

    Muench (pronounced Mew-nik) has been catching blue crabs for 30 of his 66 years, and he has never seen it this bad.
    Gus Muench of Ruskin guides his boat home after hauling in his crab traps in Little Cockroach Bay.

    For at least the past four years, blue crabs have been disappearing from Florida waters. Between 1999 and 2002, blue crab catches declined 23 percent on the Atlantic Coast and 29 percent on the Gulf Coast, said Gil McRae, director of the Florida Marine Research Institute.

    A couple of spots in the state have maintained a fairly stable catch, but the decline of blue crabs has hit crabbers all over: Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Crystal River, Cocoa Beach and Cedar Key. In Tampa Bay alone, McRae said, the drop was about 20 percent.

    McRae considers the declining numbers significant and promised that the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would investigate. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss it next month.

    Other Southern states have experienced similar dropoffs, prompting a search for the cause.

    To Muench, who lives on the Little Manatee River near Ruskin, there's no need to look for the culprit.

    He sees him every day in the mirror. He contends he and other crabbers have been putting out too many traps in too many places for too long.

    "We'll catch the last crab in this river if the Fish and Wildlife Commission will let us," Muench said.

    But if state officials limit the catches and impose other restrictions, he said, "then in the long run we'll be better off. But the way things are going, I won't have a job in a couple years."

    Muench's self-indictment has not exactly made him popular with other crabbers.

    Many of them showed up at recent public hearings around the state to oppose any effort to regulate them.

    Other crabbers "either shoot me a bird or they call me up and cuss me out," Muench said. "They don't realize I'm trying to save their livelihood."

    As Muench talked, the blue crabs in his cooler scrambled around, searching for a way out. One clambered on top of the others and scooted over the side, but his bid for freedom ended with a tumble to the bottom of the boat.

    Male blue crabs tend to stick close to shore all their lives, but the females might travel hundreds of miles.

    Their genus name, Callinectes, means "beautiful swimmers," while their species, sapidus, means "savory."

    Among Gulf Coast states, Florida ranks second to Louisiana in blue crabs.

    In 1996, Florida crabbers harvested nearly 18-million pounds. By 2001, the number had fallen to 7.5-million pounds, worth about $8-million.

    "It's so bad I'm looking for a job," said Ron Davis, a Fort Myers commercial fisherman of 40 years and a crabber for eight.

    In the past, a day's work would bring in 250 pounds of crabs, he said. "The other day, I caught 17 pounds. Didn't even pay for my gas."

    More than 2,000 people are licensed by Florida to catch blue crabs, but only 800 or so are active crabbers, most of them middle-aged men who learned the business from their fathers and hope to someday to hand it over to their sons or daughters.

    Their numbers have dwindled too -- in the mid 1990s there were more than 5,000 crabbers statewide, pulling about 10-million traps.

    Despite those fluctuations, Florida's rules for commercial crabbers haven't changed in years. The state collects $50 for a license, which lets crabbers ply their trade with no limit on number of traps or size of catch, no closed season and no closed areas. A recreational crabber needs no license at all, so long as he or she puts out no more than five traps.

    One result of the lack of regulation is easy to spot. A researcher for Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota recently counted 3,150 crab traps in one stretch of the Peace River.

    Yet those traps have been turning up empty in recent years.

    "The traps are so thick out there you can walk on them, yet no one's bringing in any crabs," Rob Boscovich, who manages wholesale services for Blue Shore Seafood Co. in the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast, complained to a reporter in 1999.

    To compensate, Florida seafood companies -- which not too long ago were shipping crabs north to Maryland to meet growing demand around Chesapeake Bay -- are sending their trucks to Louisiana to buy thousands of pounds of crabs at twice the cost rather than lose customers.

    If misery loves company, Florida crabbers can commiserate with colleagues in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, where catches also have fallen off. The blue crab catch in Georgia waters has dropped so precipitously that officials have talked of seeking federal aid.

    The decline means more than just a jump in the cost of a seafood platter. A recent study by Brown University scientists found that without blue crabs, Southern marshes could disappear.

    The blue crabs eat periwinkle snails, which dine on cordgrass in the marshes.

    If there aren't crabs to control the snail population, the Brown study found, the snails ate all the cordgrass. Without cordgrass to bind the sediment together, the marshes disappeared.

    Overgrazing by periwinkle snails will convert a salt marsh into a mud flat in just eight months, the study found. That so alarmed the researchers that they called for curtailing crab harvesting.

    "Cut back the blue crab harvest because even if we're half-right, the results of overharvesting could be disastrous," the project's senior researcher, Mark Bertness, warned last fall.

    Not everyone is sold on the idea that overfishing is to blame. Some blue crab experts believe the decline is cyclical. Some think it's connected to weather conditions.

    "A lot of it may have to do with the drought," said Anne McMillen-Jackson, a biologist at the Florida Marine Research Institute who has studied blue crabs. "You find male blue crabs in the lower salinity water. . . . Because of the drought, you're not getting as much fresh water into the bays."

    But Muench thinks -- and McRae says he could be right -- that overfishing is pushing a natural decline even lower than it should be, and thus making it more difficult for crabs to rebound the way they should.

    A study by Florida Marine Research Institute biologists two years ago said blue crabs did not appear to be overfished but acknowledged that finding depended on researchers' hypothesis that the crabs live only three years.

    If they are supposed to live longer, say six years or more, the biologists wrote, "then our analysis would indicate that blue crabs are overfished on both coasts."

    Some of Muench's fellow crabbers agree with him that they have hauled in too many crabs and hurt the species. But they stop far short of endorsing his proposed remedies: limit traps, hand out future licenses only by lottery, establish sections of the state's rivers as off-limits to traps so blue crabs can use them as sanctuaries.

    "Unless they have a safe place to hide, we're going to destroy the resource," Muench said.

    In a series of 16 public hearings across the state last year, crabbers generally opposed some or all of those measures.

    Some argue there is no need to limit their industry because it's a dying trade anyway.

    A report on those hearings noted that one group of crabbers in Crawfordville "estimated there were 4,000 fewer traps in the water due to people retiring in just the last two years. . . . This group thinks that the industry is declining due to natural and economic forces and license limits are therefore unnecessary."

    Concern about burgeoning traps prompted state officials to freeze the number of crab-trapping licenses in 1998, so they could get a better estimate as to how many traps might be clogging the state's waterways.

    Last year, they extended the moratorium until 2005.

    But there has been some talk about reopening the licensing to more crabbers, a proposal that leaves Muench fuming. "How are you going to open it up," he asked, "when it's going down the tubes?"

    -- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story, which contains information from the Fort Myers News-Press and Florida Today.

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