Academic journal article Human Organization

Blue Crabs and Controversy on the Chesapeake Bay: A Cultural Model for Understanding Watermen's Reasoning about Blue Crab Management

Academic journal article Human Organization

Blue Crabs and Controversy on the Chesapeake Bay: A Cultural Model for Understanding Watermen's Reasoning about Blue Crab Management

Article excerpt

Commercial fishers of the Chesapeake Bay, known throughout the region as watermen, have depended for centuries on the bay's natural resources to support their families and communities. Recently, yield and population indicators have led marine scientists and natural resource managers to conclude that the blue crab population is at dangerously low levels and that reductions in commercial harvesting are key to protecting the blue crab. Watermen agree that the blue crab fishery is under intense pressure and see a role for science and regulations in helping to sustain the fishery and their livelihoods, but they question the scientific knowledge and are critical of the governmental regulations. Watermen's knowledge, beliefs, and values have not been explored for their potential as an alternative or complement to scientific and regulatory approaches to addressing problems of the blue crab fishery. This paper uses a cognitive anthropology approach to enrich our understanding of watermen's cultural and ecological knowledge and to analyze that knowledge to identify a cultural model of watermen's reasoning about blue crab management.

Key words: watermen, cultural models, blue crab, fisheries management, Chesapeake Bay

For centuries commercial fishermen of the Chesapeake Bay, known throughout the region as watermen, have depended on the immense productivity of the nation's largest estuary to support their families and communities and to provide consumers near and far with oysters, crabs, shad, sturgeon and herring. Today, declines in water quality resulting from urban runoff, rural nonpoint pollution of nitrogen and phosphorous, widespread destruction of oyster beds due to parasitic infection, and increased pressure from recreational and commercial fishing have dramatically reduced the bay's once diverse and bountiful harvests. While efforts are underway to restore the oyster fishery, currently the blue crab is the bay's only remaining significant commercial fishery. However, this fishery may also be in trouble.

Marine scientists and natural resource managers recently concluded that the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) spawning stock is at dangerously low levels and that a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, might reduce the population to a level from which it may not recover. Bay scientists and resource managers recognize that this decline is the result of multiple causes and also acknowledge that current scientific understanding of the blue crab is limited. Nevertheless, scientists and resource managers concluded that the most prudent course of action to protect the blue crab is to immediately reduce the commercial harvest.

Watermen agree with scientists and resource managers that the blue crab fishery is under intense pressure and see a role for science and regulations in helping to sustain the fishery and their livelihoods. However, watermen do not feel that the commercial harvest of blue crabs is the main problem in the fishery. In public fora held to discuss the recent scientific findings and proposed regulations, in print, television and radio media, and in the Maryland state courts, commercial watermen and processors have argued repeatedly that science and regulations should not "cut" the watermen's share of the resource, but rather address problems of fish predation of blue crabs and the harmful effects of declining water quality on blue crab habitat and reproduction.1 Watermen also question the scientific findings of a low spawning population, arguing instead that the current low harvests are part of natural cycles and variability that have always characterized the blue crab.

The differences in the views of scientists, resource managers, and watermen on how best to manage and protect the blue crab fishery are not an isolated example. In the literature on management of coastal and marine natural resources, a number of researchers have reported that traditional ecological knowledge and scientific knowledge often do not "fit. …

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