Crabbers, scientists seek answers to a dying ecosystem

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

DARIEN, Ga. -- As Carl "Poppa" Poppell zooms his boat around the North River, shrimp skip in his wake like water skiers and the wind flattens his cap against his tanned forehead. "Going NASCAR," the 50-year-old crabber calls it.

Then something stops him cold. Tangled in the cordgrass off the starboard side is a pink-and-white buoy with the initials "C.P." marking one of his crab traps.

"See that clean cut?" he says as he runs his calloused hand across the shorn rope. "That's a knife or a machete or a hatchet. ... Props don't do that."

Poppell has lost 60 crab pots to vandalism this summer, some of the 600 cut during a turf war in the marshlands south of Savannah. That's what competition and frustration have driven some of these blue crab fishermen to.

In many ways, the crabbers have become like their prey, scratching and clawing for survival in an ecosystem that is quickly becoming less hospitable to them. Last year's Georgia blue crab catch was a historically low 2.7 million pounds, less than a third of the 46-year average, and it's worse elsewhere in the Southeast.

Now, a young ecologist is saying that without the crabs, the marshes themselves might die -- the very marshes that serve, not only as the crabs' nursery, but as a breeding and feeding ground for shrimp, drum, oysters and other commercially important species. In some areas, the researcher suggests, overfishing of the crabs may be a major culprit.

No, no, no, Poppell says. Development, drought and other factors upstream are starving the estuaries of fresh water, raising their salinity, breeding disease. But with things as they are, he worries he may be overfishing what's left without even meaning to.

As he motors through the creeks, Poppell wonders whether he and the crabs are racing toward the same bleak future.

No crabs, no marsh?

"Overharvesting of blue crabs may be triggering the colossal die-off of salt marshes across the southeastern United States." That was the headline on a Brown University release about ecologist Brian Silliman's work.

For Poppell, it was like a red flag to a cornered bull. He wanted to meet this Silliman guy. Probably another one of those eggheads who sits behind a desk all day trying to find ways to hurt working folk.

"We've lived this thing," Poppell says as he points his boat toward Sapelo. "We may not have all the scientific data to back it up, but we've lived it."

Silliman meets the boat at the ferry dock. His white boots and green Army pants are splattered with marsh mud. At least he's not afraid to go out and get dirty for his information, Poppell figures.

The young ecologist assures Poppell that, headlines aside, his study was only meant to flash a "yellow light of caution" to crabbers and those who regulate them. Poppell's already seen the light.

When things started going south, he and other Georgia crabbers went to state officials and offered to limit themselves. They went from unlimited licenses and unlimited pots to 159 crab permits, each allowing its holder 200 traps -- and not all of those have been taken.

Doug Haymans, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' liaison to crabbers, agrees with Poppell that disease, drought and other factors, not overfishing, are likely the problem here. But to Silliman, the result is the same -- no crabs could mean no marsh.

Scarce catch

Back on the North River, Poppell speeds from float to float, pulling traps to the surface and dumping their contents. Trap after empty trap comes up caked with growth, its bait well still full of rotting mullet.

For most of the morning, he lands more flounder, spadefish, hermit crabs and puffer fish than he does blues. This stretch of water was his "honey hole" for 25 years, averaging up to 1,500 pounds a day this part of the season.

"I can't even make a living out of it now," he says ruefully.

Next, Poppell heads into another river that was recently abandoned by a fellow crabber who moved on to greener pastures.

There, he hauls in traps with 10, 15, 20 crabs apiece -- better, but still a third of what they should be, or worse.

Close to quitting time, another boat rounds a horseshoe bend in the marsh and pulls alongside Poppell's. It's Carl Jr.

"I might have a box," the 25-year-old son says over the idling motors.

"This time of year we should be catching eight, 10 boxes apiece, easy. ... After I take out my bait, my gas, I might make 30 bucks. This is a very poor day. Very poor."

Together, father and son have landed about two boxes of crabs. Pitiful.

As he heads in for the day, Poppell is feeling as endangered as the wood stork gliding overhead. But in the bow of his boat is one small consolation -- tangled in a float line was one of his severed pots.

Call it a $25 payback.

"That was my catch of the day," he says with a wry smile.

And there was another bonus. Inside was a single blue crab.

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