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Environmental Issues

Editorial: Protect blue crabs by protecting the Rappahannock

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Blue Crabs

Think of blue crabs, and tasty eating probably is the first thing that comes to mind. While many equate our neighbor to the north — Maryland — with this delicacy, the fact is these crabs are found all along the East Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico and as far south as Argentina.

The Chesapeake Bay is key to the species’ survival in our region, and recent news about the declining population suggests we have a lot of work to do.

First, the good news. The annual Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey, which measures the population of crabs in the bay, shows the population of female spawning-age crabs is above the minimum number (72.5 million), or “threshold” needed to keep the number of crabs in the bay high. This year’s count was 97 million.

Started in 1988, the survey also tracks the overall crab population, and the number of young crabs that will be the target of fishers in the spring and fall.

This brings us to the bad news. The total number of crabs in the bay is at its lowest point (227 million) in dredge survey history. The 2022 figure also marks the third straight year of declining population.

There are lots of factors that help explain the drop in blue crabs. One is the rapidly growing number of blue catfish, which have voracious appetites for crabs, says Brent Hunsinger, tidal program manager at Friends of the Rappahannock.

Another factor is the declining amount of underwater grasses, which are a critical habitat for blue crabs. Pollution from agricultural and development runoff are key factors in the grasses’ decline.

Then there are issues like climate change. Each year, female crabs move toward the saltier waters in the southern part of the bay to spawn.

Each female crab can produce as many as 3 million eggs, which float out into the ocean. Over the next 12 to 18 months, they ride the currents as they mature, which eventually bring them back to the bay.

Climate change is not only elevating water temperatures; it also is altering currents, which affects the number of crabs finding their way back.

So what can we do to help the blue crab population thrive?

“Everything we do in this watershed,” says Hunsinger, affects what happens in the bay. “We need everyone baywide to work on this issue, but it really comes down to us reducing our nutrient inflows into the Rappahannock — agricultural inputs, residential inputs, and nutrients and sediments from developments.”

The Tri-County/City Soil and Water Conservation District (TCCSWCD) is a local arm of Virginia’s SWCD system, serving the city of Fredericksburg, as well as the counties of King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford. A key piece of its work is helping farmers and developers carry out best practices that keep runoff and waste byproducts from entering the watershed.

Hunsinger says examples include “fencing livestock out of streams, and planting trees.” Rain gardens are another tactic, where developers create bowls in the land that capture runoff and allow the soil to filter the nutrients.

The TCCSWCD provides support for developers and those in agriculture to implement best management practices through the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program.

There also are many things that everyday citizens can do. Learning about the river may well be the most important thing we all can do.

The Friends of the Rappahannock is a rich resource for families, educators and anyone who wants to know more about the river, and the ways in which our actions have profound impacts on the Chesapeake Bay.

So this summer, between beach trips and sports camps, make some time for you and your family to get out to the Rappahannock River. Friends of the Rappahannock offers an array of things families can get involved with, including a summer camp.

And Sept. 17 is Riverfest, which includes all-you-can-eat crabs, if the count comes up. If it doesn’t, there will be fried catfish and oysters, as well as barbecue. All proceeds benefit Friends of the Rappahannock, supporting its work in protecting the river, and its waters that flow to the bay.

Protect the bay. Clean up the river. And enjoy tasty blue crabs. That’s a win-win-win for all of us.

— Adapted from The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

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