Standing in his algae kitchen, a bespectacled Yonathan Zohar, Ph.D., professor and director of the Center of Marine Biotechnology (COMB) at the University of Maryland’s Biotechnology Institute (UMBI), proudly eyes the goopy green concoction that only a crab could sink its teeth—or perhaps its claws—into.
This kitchen—a slightly smelly area teeming with hanging, heavy plastic bags and tubes chock full of microscopic algae and other edible organisms—is just one complex area in COMB’s 20,000-square-foot laboratory on Pratt Street in Baltimore. Here, the Jerusalem-born scientist and his staff are hatching and growing blue crabs in giant tanks filled with re-circulating, recycled sea water.
Dr. Zohar’s research is one part of the largest blue crab hatchery and research project in the world, the Blue Crab Advanced Research Consortium, a multifaceted program involving six partners in four states, which is helping to ensure that Maryland will forever be for crabs.
Although crab research has been ongoing for over two decades, more funding has enabled Dr. Zohar and his partners to dramatically scale up the ability to hatch and release blue crabs into the Chesapeake Bay.
An initial grant from the state helped COMB initiate blue crab research in 2000. Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development kicked in $300,000, and Phillips Seafood Inc., whose founder is a third-generation waterman, matched that grant. Now, thanks to federal and state grants, including a $5 million grant from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr. Zohar and teams at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), the Maryland Watermen’s Association’s (MWA) Crabs Around the Bay Inc. (C.R.A.B.), the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, North Carolina State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi can spend nearly $1 million annually to determine if labbed and released crabs will help bring back the bushels.
Though the quality and quantity of the aggressive crustaceans are crucial to the state’s economy, blue crab populations have been considered in jeopardy for nearly a decade.
“The highest level of abundance we’ve seen in the winter dredge survey [the annual bay-wide effort that assesses the status of the crab population] was 852 million crabs in 1993; the lowest was 281 million crabs in 2000,” explains Lynn Fegley, a fisheries biologist who manages the Blue Crab Program for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “The numbers have been slowly increasing. And, in 2005, the status was 477 million, so I would say it’s stable at low levels of abundance. We are not completely out of the woods, but we do seem to have halted the decline.”
Adds SERC’s director (as well as blue crab expert and consortium partner) Anson “Tuck” Hines, Ph.D., who has been researching the tasty critters on the Rhode River for nearly 30 years, “Not only are crabs important ecologically— to predators and to the bay— they’re also lucrative.”
Ironically, for a creature of such great importance to the Mid-Atlantic’s economy, little was once known about the blue crab’s basic biology and migratory patterns.
Thus far, scientific findings about the state icon have been rather remarkable.
“What Yoni’s group has done with blue crabs is unbelievably valuable,” says Fegley, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Stock Assessment Committee. “They have closed the complicated life cycle of this animal. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, and because they’ve done it, we are learning really incredible things.”
One of these key findings is actually how crabs reproduce. Contrary to popular belief, scientists recently learned that females can spawn many times—something watermen have been saying for years. She also can release eggs in batches rather than all at once.
In fact, females only mate once in their lifetimes, but can sponge up (hold fertilized eggs in a spongy mass on their abdomens) five times, carrying over one million eggs in each of those spongy sacks, explains longtime waterman and MWA president, Larry Simns. “It changes a lot for us because if you’re a waterman and you harvest a female, you haven’t harvested just one female, but the potential for five more spawns,” says Simns, whose association represents the 5,000 commercial watermen in the state.