|Stanley Nwakamma, an intern at Morgan State University’s
Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory,
hoists a crab pot in 2018 while working on the facility’s
long-running blue crab survey. (Morgan State University)
One of the longest-running scientific investigations of the Chesapeake Bay is in danger of shutting down permanently.Many years ago, when this was the Academy of Natural Sciences Estuarine Research Center, I would occasionally be called on to sub in for someone who couldn't make it on this study. Once, when George was out for back surgery, the Assistant Director and I were tapped as the long term substitutes. It took us four hours longer, and resulted in us being almost infinitely more dirty than George ever got. Once a big Jimmy got a hold of my finger, and nearly crushed it through the heavy glove I was wearing.
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.”