By Dr. Wayne Cascio
If you grew up in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay like I did, you’d know what Jimmies are. For those of you that don’t—Jimmies are male blue crabs. Catching these well-known residents of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is a favorite recreational activity for many people and an important commercial industry for communities along the Bay. In fact, crabbing is deeply rooted in the history, culture, and culinary experience of the Bay.
But what does crabbing have to do with science? We’ll get to that, but first I’ll share my recent experience of crabbing with my brother-in-law, John Navarro, along the South River just south of Annapolis. We set out in the early morning and watched the river come to life. Osprey and geese were plentiful and a few crows, ducks, and gulls were working the waterway just as we sought to do. In shallow water near the shore we set out two baited trot lines, each about 500 feet long. Two large red buoys anchored at the ends of the lines bobbed with the passing wake of boats. As we slowly trolled, the line rose slowly to the surface passing over a hook hanging from the side of the boat. Imagine the anticipation as a blue crab holding onto the bait rose from the depths and suddenly appeared. With a quick move of the net the crab was scooped into a basket on the boat. One’s attention had to immediately return to the rising line or you could miss the next one. Captain John didn’t take kindly to missing a “legal” Jimmie. We caught scores of crabs but kept three-dozen large Jimmies. Later that evening we steamed the crabs the way we do in Maryland and enjoyed them with family, friends, and pre-season football.
The availability of blue crabs in the Bay and its tributaries is a natural resource that depends on the health of the Bay. In fact we can view the bounty of this harvest of blue crabs as a prime example of an “ecosystem service” the Bay provides to people and the myriad of other forms of life that depend on the well-being of the blue crab population. The enjoyment of recreational crabbing, its social benefits, and the jobs provided by the crabbing industry have value and can be described as goods and services provided by the Bay’s ecosystem.
In 2014 the dockside value of blue crabs in Maryland was $54 million. Ascribing value to ecosystem services is one way to help communities understand trade-offs when making decisions that have the potential to affect the Bay’s ecosystem so that important resources such as our crab fisheries are protected.
EPA researchers are working to quantify ecosystem services and illuminate the ways they contribute to our own well-being. Included are studies that specifically contribute to a better understanding of the contribution of the Bay’s ecosystem to our society and to all living organisms. For example, we are studying the factors that lead to excess nutrients in the water that creates a so-called, “dead zone” (i.e., zone of hypoxia) caused by low dissolved oxygen that depletes the marine species such as the blue crab.
So, what’s a morning of recreational crabbing on the South River worth? At a personal level it remains the great feeling I get experiencing nature’s beauty and feasting on the Bay’s bounty with family. Yet, through my work with the EPA I have a much greater appreciation of the value of the quality of the environment and what it provides for us. Placing an economic value on the goods and services that nature provides is one way to conceptualize the tangible value that flow from ecosystems directly to people. So, what are these ecosystem services worth to you? That’s up to you and your community.
Restoration of the Chesapeake Bay: https://www.epa.gov/restoration-chesapeake-bay
Munns WR Jr, Rea AW. Ecosystem services: value is in the eye of the beholder. Integr Environ Assess Manag. 2015 Apr;11(2):332-3. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25820311)
About the Author: Wayne Cascio is a physician/scientist who spent more than 30 years as a cardiologist before joining EPA’s Office of Research and Development where he now leads research on the links between environmental quality and population health.