One of the longest-running scientific investigations of the Chesapeake Bay is in danger of shutting down permanently.
The Morgan State University blue crab monitoring survey has persisted for 50 years through two institutions, three financial sponsors and the evolution from paper to digital tabulation. But its funding dried up this year, and the deep financial downturn triggered by the coronavirus has cast doubt on finding an alternative source.
“Normally, we’d be getting the crab survey ready, but that’s not happening this year unfortunately,” said Tom Ihde, the fisheries ecologist at Morgan State who currently helms the study.
The coronavirus has grounded environmental research across the Chesapeake region and around the globe. Some studies are impossible to carry out without violating social-distancing protocols. Others suffered human resource shortages when university graduate students were sent home. And the future funding picture is hazy at best.
Amid this crisis within a crisis, the Morgan State crab study stands out. Its ills predate the pandemic, putting it in a tougher spot than most of the other suspended work. Meanwhile, what hangs in the balance isn’t a few months of datasets but rather a decades-long crusade that helped fishery managers resurrect the iconic species after years of decline.
Ihde said he has been trying to find other avenues to finance the work. The prospects didn’t look good before the coronavirus emerged, he said. Now, they look even worse.
“These long-term surveys are notoriously hard to keep funded, and it’s not cheap to get boats on the water or to pay for gear and staff time,” Ihde said. “We’re trying to find other ways of funding. I’ve tried quite a few, but there’s no success yet.”
The research historically has cost about $50,000 a year to conduct.
The protocol has changed little from the beginning. Once a month from June to early November, when crabs are most active, Ihde and his team bait 30 crab pots with menhaden and drop them into the Bay along the western shore in southern Maryland. The pots are divided among offshore sites near Kenwood Beach, Rocky Point and Calvert Cliffs.
The researchers return in their boat 24 hours later to record how many they caught, the size of the crustaceans and the characteristics of the water.
The study got under way in 1968. It grew out of researchers’ and environmentalists’ concerns about how a new nuclear power plant, which was then nearly a decade from opening at Calvert Cliffs, would affect crabs with its discharges of heated water.
The scientist selected to lead the study was fresh from receiving his master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Delaware. George Abbe became the first employee of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Estuarine Research Center on the Patuxent River.
Over the next 40 years, Abbe produced a wealth of publications — more than 150, including his oyster research and other topics. But the crab study was his obsession, colleagues say.
The crab survey would soon move beyond its initial parochial goal — the heated water turned out to be a non-factor. Along the way, the survey shaped science’s evolving understanding of the Bay’s crabs.
Sandra Shumway, a marine scientist with the University of Connecticut who knew Abbe through academic conferences and followed his work closely, called him a visionary for developing a study that stood the test of time.
“Long-term data sets are rare,” she said. “It’s only by having that long, broad picture that you really understand what the population is doing.”
In the 1990s, Abbe was one of the first scientists to warn that the once-abundant species was dwindling in the Bay. His work showed that fishermen were taking too many crabs just over the legal size limit instead of waiting for them to grow mature enough to reproduce, a phenomenon known as “growth overfishing.”
“He rang the warning bell very loudly and clearly,” Ihde said.
Abbe’s research helped inform the U.S. Commerce Department’s decision in 2008 to declare the Chesapeake crab fishery a disaster, Ihde said. The designation made watermen eligible for $75 million in federal aid. It also prompted fishery managers in Maryland and Virginia to enact harvest restrictions that have been widely credited with helping to drive the population up 60% to 594 million crabs as of 2019.
The study has weathered several changes in recent years.
In 2004, the Academy transferred the research center that housed Abbe’s work to Morgan State. Funding for the study began with Baltimore Gas & Electric, the nuclear plant’s original owner. After 15 years, it moved to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for 30 years. The state money stopped flowing in 2011; there was no funding and no surveying for the next two years.
Abbe continued working and studying the Bay’s shellfish until shortly before his death in August 2013 at the age of 69.
Dominion Energy, which operates a liquefied natural gas plant in the area, stepped up and voluntarily funded the work from 2014 through last year. This year’s stoppage initially stemmed from a mix-up between Morgan State and Dominion over the application deadline for the funds, each side confirmed.
But the coronavirus has forced the energy company to reshuffle its priorities.
“We have halted all expenditures companywide for the foreseeable future,” said George Anas, Dominion’s external affairs manager. “It’s not that we don’t care any less [about the crab survey]. We have enjoyed working with them, and we look down the road hoping we can do some more.”
Maryland’s DNR has no plans to fund the study, agency spokesman Gregg Bortz said.
The state has conducted its own annual crab survey in conjunction with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science since 1990. It uses dredges to collect crabs during the winter.
Bortz added that the agency’s scientists prefer their method for assessing the population size because it analyzes many locations around the Bay and catches crabs of all sizes. In contrast, the Morgan State study focuses on one area and can only capture crabs that are at least a year old.
The director of what is now known as the Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory insists the study can still be valuable to the state’s fishery monitoring. “Our survey can do different things and fill in some gaps,” Scott Knoche said.
For example, because it looks at female crab movements in the fall, the study can be used to predict reproduction levels for the next spring, Ihde said.
Tom Miller, a crab specialist who directs the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the winter dredge survey supplies the best overall snapshot of the blue crab population. He helps author the annual study.
The Morgan State survey may no longer be as vital for fishery managers as it once was, but it is still useful for spotting long-range trends, Miller said.
“What’s important about it is you conduct it the same way,” he said. “If you see crabs are less abundant than they were in this pot survey, because the methods are the same, that should be a reliable indicator of changes in the overall crab population.”
Last year, the center’s staff converted decades of Abbe’s handwritten notes to digital records. Ihde has begun analyzing the voluminous dataset and hopes to dig up findings that persuade some entity to fund future field work.
A long-term study can survive a year or two without collecting new data, Ihde said. But if the delay goes on much longer, it seriously compromises the survey’s ongoing usefulness to fellow researchers and fishery managers.
“Long-term surveys like this are absolutely critical when it comes to trying to understand population changes over time, especially when the system itself is changing,” Ihde said, referring to the way climate change has led to warmer winters and shorter periods of dormancy for crabs. “It’s easy to lose sight of what things should be like. Fifty years is well beyond most people’s professional career memory.”