In today’s post, I will show you the Maryland crabbing stamps that were issued from 1991 through 1993 and discuss the possibility that similar stamps may have been issued for previous years. We will conclude this two part series by taking a hard look at some of the issues affecting the viability of the Chesapeake crab fisheries going forward.
During the ten year period between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s, officials from both Maryland and Virginia were very concerned about potential over harvesting. Much of this concern stemmed from the steady increase in the number of non commercial crabbers.
Unfortunately, from the standpoint of conservation measures, the Chesapeake Bay crab population recorded its two highest totals ever in the the early 1990s (see Figure 1).
It was during this time of potential recovery and abundance that Maryland issued its now legendary crabbing stamps.
A friend of mine, Paul Hanyok, wrote a book about Maryland’s “Conservation Laws, Licenses and Enforcement Officers” that was first published in 1996 (see Figure 2). At the time, Paul was both a Maryland enforcement officer, himself, as well as a serious collector of fish and game stamps and licenses. Paul had a keen interest in Maryland stamps and licenses and was very knowledgable.
In addition, Paul sought the help of other advanced collectors, including myself, and we finished the project feeling that we had done a pretty thorough job. I helped write the stamp section in the book and, quite frankly, between Paul and myself we pretty much knew what we were talking about.
The reason I am making a point of this is that in reviewing Paul’s book, we stated that the (pictorial?) crabbing stamps were issued from 1988 through 1993. Further, Paul provides sales figures for many of the years.
At this time (2016), I am unaware of any having been recorded prior to those I am about to show you. I was visiting the Maryland department of Natural Resources License Section Headquarters on an annual basis during the period in question and had a vey good relationship with the Supervisor. I thought I had access to all of the stamps that were issued, including those that were generally not sold to collectors.
Having said that, I want to preface this highly anticipated section by stating that it is possible that similar stamps were issued in prior years and perhaps as early as 1988. Should anyone out there have more information (scans would be nice), please contact me so that I can update this post.
Pictorial Crabbing Stamps Issued
The way I remember it now, I was visiting with the License Supervisor at the end of 1991 when she first informed me about the crabbing stamps. At that point, she told me that the 1991 stamps were no longer available but that she still had the original proof pane of ten resident stamps – which she subsequently gave to me for my collection (see Figures 3 and 4).
Starting in 1992, I became quite involved in showing my exhibit Classic State and Local Fish and Game Stamps. I did not have as much time to visit all of the state fish and game agencies and since Paul was a good friend he offered to get me the Maryland stamps for 1992 and 1993.
For 1992, Paul obtained for me a set of panes for each type of stamp issued; resident, non resident and a NO FEE stamp that was printed for juniors and seniors, as well as a couple of blocks and singles (see Figures 5 through 10).
Following the 1993 season, the Chesapeake bay crab population plummeted for the second time in three years. This would signal the start of a period of steady decline in the total crab population. The population would be reduced by nearly two-thirds in just over a decade (see Figure 1).
It also signaled the end for the Maryland crabbing stamp series and they were discontinued following the 1993 season. For 1993, Paul obtained for me a set of partial panes for each of the three final stamps plus a pair of two of them.
The 1993 stamps were oversized and issued in panes of five vertical pairs with an accounting stub occupying the bottom portion of each pair. Since the resulting panes were now so large, a vertical pair from each pane was often detached upon receipt from the printer so they would fit conveniently in the clerk’s drawers at the License Section offices (see Figures 11 through 16).
So there you have it, more than just a rumor. By 1995, a growing atmosphere of concern led to a series of advisory committees being formed, emergency measures being handed down from the Governor’s office and further licensing limits and restrictions.
If you were to take a poll, I think you would find Maryland and Virginia residents pretty much equally divided between blaming: 1) Environmental issues and 2) over harvesting. I have taken some time to analyze the data and have concluded the problem is actually a combination of both.
The two main environment issues are interrelated. One has to do with the health of the grass beds that grow on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries – specifically the eel grass beds that provide refuge from predators for immature blue crabs. The other has to do with low oxygen dead zones that kill the food that blue crabs eat and can quickly kill crabs themselves, especially when they are confined in a crab pot.
Basically, the eel grass habitat has been severely compromised over time and that process is accelerating. This did not happen overnight. Going all the way back to colonial times, the colonists cleared trees for farming and ship building and this began to increase sedimentation in the water. Increased sedimentation blocks sunlight the eel grass needs to thrive and has a deleterious effect.
Over the last many decades, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution has combined with sedimentation to greatly exacerbate the problem. This is known as nutrient pollution and common causes are surface runoff from farm fields and pastures, discharges from septic tanks and feedlots and emissions from high temperature combustion.
Nitrogen and phosphorous in the water stimulates excess algae which combines with the sedimentation to darken the water even more, blocking even more light. Then, when algal blooms die and rot, they sink and the decomposition process consumes oxygen and depletes the supply available to marine life.
When oxygen levels decrease, free crabs move into shallower waters which are more oxygenated. Knowing this, commercial crabbers have turned these areas into crab pot mine fields. Deeper waters with dead zones below still have a layer of oxygenated water near the surface.
In recent years, scientists have detected a phenomenon wherein strong winds are capable of pushing the oxygen-rich top layer away and the oxygen depleted waters from below rise as a temporary replacement. The result has been that when blue crabs are retrieved from crab pots – they are frequently found dead.
Until late in the 20th century, it was assumed that blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay could not be over harvested. Mature females move to the lower Bay during summer and fall, spawn the following May to September and their larvae is carried out to sea by tides and wind. After developing at sea for a few weeks, they rely on fall easterly winds to push them back into the Bay.
It was also assumed that unpredictable winds were responsible for determining the success of annual blue crab reproduction. Then studies showed that reducing the number of spawning female crabs below a certain level could have serious consequences in terms of reduced larvae production.
This allowed scientists to set a minimum number of of adult female crabs (200 million) necessary to maintain a healthy population. A target rate of crabbing was also established and that sustainable rate is 46% of the total crab population. At this rate, the population can reproduce enough and individual crabs can grow fast enough to replace the the number harvested by crabbers.
Unfortunately, as the crab population has dwindled due to the environmental issues outlined above – desperate crabbers have consistently exceeded the 46% sustainable threshold (see Figure 17).
The situation may be far worse than the graph indicates because it is now believed that a black market exists for an additional large number of blue crabs that are harvested but goes unreported.
In 2008, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population reached an all time low of 120 million adult females. Maryland and Virginia suffered combined losses approaching a billion dollars because of the crab’s decline.
In addition to the crippling effect on commercial crabbers, recreational crabbing and tourism have been visibly impacted. There is also a much broader economic impact that is not readily apparent to the casual observer. This involves restaurants, crab processors, wholesalers, grocers, delivery services and so on – untold numbers of jobs lost.
It was determined that something drastic needed to be done. The combined commercial and recreational harvest of callinectes sapidas, the savory beautiful swimmer, would have to be cut back by one third in order to bring the numbers back in line.
Historically, the Chesapeake Bay has been the most productive estuary in the United States. Author H. L. Mencken called it “an immense protein factory”. Crabbing was originally seen primarily as a commercial endeavor, but then recreational or sport crabbing became more and more popular – eventually accounting for a significant percentage of the annual harvest.
As recently as the early 1990s, the Bay’s crabbing industry seemed healthy. It was at this time that Maryland issued crabbing license stamps depicting a Chesapeake blue crab. However, the series was short-lived and discontinued following the 1993 season, when 347 million crabs were hauled out of the Bay. To see all of the Maryland Crabbing Stamps in one gallery, click here.
The all time record catch set off a downward spiral that has been exacerbated by environmental issues and resulted in the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population being reduced by 70% between the 1993 and 2009 seasons.
This had far reaching economic ramifications throughout the entire region and subsequently led to a series of restrictive blue crab fishery management measures that originally were seen as unfair by the commercial and recreational crabbers who had already been seriously impacted.
I get that while it is probably true that if all the environmental issues were addressed and the crab population were to increase sort of holistically, that the crabbers would probably not be blamed for over harvesting. In other words, if the crab population was much larger, their annual catch would not exceed the 46% threshold.
However, you have to play with the cards you are dealt. In order to bring the Chesapeake Bay crab population back to healthy levels – there is going to have to be less crabbing going forward. At least for an extended period of time.
In recent years the restrictions placed on commercial and recreational crabbing seem to be having a positive cumulative effect. This year (2016), the adult female crab population was 190 million. While this number is a far cry from historical highs, it is getting very close to the 200 million target number needed to keep the blue crab population viable.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about the Chesapeake blue crab, crabbing and the Maryland crabbing stamps. If anyone has information on stamps (pictorial or otherwise) issued prior to 1991, please drop me an email or give me a call. I will be sure to pass on the information via a new post.