May 24, 2018
Column

Has the DMR gone mad over green crab harvesting?

By Brian F. Beal, Special to the BDN

Unbelievable! Unfathomable! What is going on? On May 16, Gov. Angus King signed into law An Act to Establish a Commercial Green Crab Fishing License. The Maine Department of Marine Resources through Sen. Kenneth Lamont, R-York, and Rep. David Lemoine, D-Old Orchard Beach, introduced the emergency bill to the Legislature. The bill requires individuals to purchase a license ($33 resident; $66 nonresident) if they wish to harvest and sell green crabs for human consumption, bait or any other saleable product. In addition, the bill establishes a Green Crab Management Fund for “research and management programs for the green crab fishery.”

Management?

Don’t the DMR and the Legislature realize that the green crab is an exotic species and, before 1900, did not exist in waters north of Portland, and, before 1950, did not exist in waters north of Hancock County? In the 1940s, 60 percent to 70 percent of all clams harvested in Maine came from Washington and Hancock counties. In 1950, 6.9 million pounds of clams were harvested in Maine. By 1959, when green crabs had become firmly established in the two eastern counties, clammers harvested only 1.5 million pounds, a decline of nearly 80 percent over nine years. There weren’t enough clams east of the Penobscot River to support many clammers and most either left the industry completely or became part-timers, supplementing their incomes in other resource-based industries.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Maine Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries (the former name of the DMR), spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and equipment to fight a losing battle to curtail the population explosion of green crabs. In fact, there is still a marine resources law that enables communities that manage their soft-shell clam stocks to apply to DMR for funds to help them purchase netting or fencing to deter the predatory activities of green crabs.

Now, the DMR wishes to manage green crabs to create a sustainable fishery. So, on one hand, the DMR acknowledges that green crabs are responsible for removing substantial numbers of clams from productive flats, and, therefore, taking money from the clamming industry, and, on the other hand, the agency is interested in managing the green crab fishery so that more green crabs are available for some market somewhere.

In fact, the DMR is proposing an entire set of regulations to sustain the green crab fishery that includes restrictions on trap size, mesh size, escape panel size, number of traps per trawl, buoy color and design, etc. and a ban on possessing egg-bearing females. In addition, they are proposing a green crab trap tag and tag fees. Does this sound anything like the DMR’s management strategy for lobsters?

I am surprised the agency is not proposing to create a green crab advisory council or green crab management zones. Here’s my take on the situation. Someone has found a market for green crabs and is making some money selling them. Word got out. Since there is no specific law or regulation in place for the state to tax, license or otherwise benefit from the entrepreneurial activities of green crab fishers, someone must have thought there is no time like the present for the state to exert its might and collect revenue from these folks.

To the best of my knowledge, a lobster license doubles as a “crab” license. Crab is generally defined as one of two commercial species: rock crab (Cancer irroratus) and jonah crab (Cancer borealis). It would not take much to add green crab (Carcinus maenas) to this list entitling every lobster fisher to legally possess green crabs. What about people who want to trap green crabs that do not have (and cannot obtain) a license to fish lobsters? A number of solutions exist that are much easier to implement than creating a full-fledged green crab management plan.

These include but are not limited to purchasing green crabs from licensed lobster fishers, permitting people to fish specially designed traps in the intertidal zone (where relatively few commercial size lobsters occur) as is done in some southern Maine communities such as Wells and Scarborough, or simply allowing people to fish for green crabs using whatever means they wish – if they catch lobsters they are not entitled to, then they must put them back, just as scallop, mussel or quahog draggers must do when their incidental catch includes lobsters.

Setting up an entire regulatory system for green crabs will discourage rather than encourage people to fish for this non-endemic animal. In my opinion, we should do everything we can to encourage a green crab fishery, and, if it goes the way of other “managed” fisheries such as sea urchins, whelks, sea cucumbers, etc. (that is, boom-and-bust), that would be just great because, from a purely ecological point of view, the green crab doesn’t belong here. Most of the species that live in our coastal waters (commercial or otherwise) have not evolved defenses to deal with this predator and are easy targets for its foraging activities.

Green crabs were accidentally introduced to the United States sometime around the time of the Civil War (1860s) and they thrived and began to move north and south from their supposed port of entry (somewhere near Long Island, N.Y.). In 1968, John Ropes, a marine biologist who worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, published his work on the diet of green crabs and found that they consume more than 100 different species from clams and mussels to barnacles, dogwhelks, marine worms, sea urchins, and even small lobsters.

This same green crab has finally established itself along the U.S. West Coast and is causing havoc with wild and cultured shellfish industries in northern California, Oregon and Washington. Scientists in those states are documenting the ecological devastation that is occurring along those coasts, and fishers and culturists are beginning to feel the economic consequences of an exotic species running rampant.

Because few people in Maine today remember or realize that there was a time when green crabs did not exist along our coast doesn’t mean that we should ignore history. We should forget about managing green crabs and do all we can do to get rid of the vermin – I suspect a lot of clammers and other commercial fishers whose catch may be affected negatively by the predatory activities of green crabs would agree.

Brian F. Beal is an associate professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias.


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