Richard Young demonstrates the use of a crab pot as his cat looks on.

Crab-walking the Party Line

A pair of Chesapeake crabbers fight to save their industry from climate change

On a frigid morning in Dundalk, Maryland, Richard Young demonstrates how a crab pot works. He wrestles one of the red wire boxes from its three-foot stack at the back of his home, which doubles as the site of his business, Coveside Crabs. Lee Carrion — Young’s wife and the “lynchpin” of the operation — implores him to mention the cull rings that allow the smaller crabs to escape the pot.

These rings allow Young to trap only the largest of the “premium, rock-solid, packed-with-meat, hard crabs” that he and Carrion exclusively sell. However, allowing the small ones to escape makes more than just economic sense; it is one of the ways that the pair practice environmentally sustainable crabbing. These coastal crabbers see the destructive impact of climate change on their industry every day, and have changed their business model to reflect that impact. While they hope that the rest of their industry will follow their lead, they are finding that the politics of climate change have gotten in the way.

Buoys are painted different colors according to the depth of their use.

Young and Carrion are atypical crabbers, with their liberal leanings and commitment to sustainability. As any crabber will tell you, their industry is typically a conservative one, though the conversation is usually focused more on the size of that day’s catch than on the whims of the White House.

“Crabbers are the most independent people you will ever know,” said Young. “They don’t want to work for anybody else, they want to do things the way that they want to do them, and it is very difficult to get a consensus as to what needs to be done for managing the crab population.”

However, the current state of affairs may necessitate collective action. Despite early-March ice sheets floating past Young and Carrion’s dock, the water temperature in their little corner of the Patapsco River — and in the world’s oceans at large — is indeed rising rapidly. This warming compromises the water quality and causes new predators (like bottlenose dolphins native to Florida) to make their way north to prey on Maryland blue crabs. These crabbers are experiencing the local implications of global climate change, and consequently are impacted by federal and international turmoil on the issue.

According to Dr. Derrick Lampkin, professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland, the crabbers’ intimate view of their changing environment is one that more people do not get.

“Understanding climate change is like trying to describe an entire house when you spend all your time in one room,” Lampkin said. “It’s probably very easy to not understand how the conditions in the overall house are changing if you never leave your room. So, most human beings have a limited perspective of the planet where they live because they’re only in one spot.”

Those whose livelihoods depend on the coast are at the front-lines of climate change. Captain Young’s concerns are mirrored by industries across the globe; Bangladeshi farmers are abandoning oceanside plots due to rising sea levels and Australian divers are seeing reefs bleached due to warming water.

These woes cross national boundaries, prompting the United Nations to prioritize climate action as a part of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The Paris Climate Agreement — initially signed in 2016 by then-President Obama — was a major international example of this action. The Agreement commits its 175 parties to take active legislative and financial steps to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Its goal is to hold the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius (as compared to pre-industrial levels).

Sheets of ice float past on the Patapsco River.

However, the conversation about climate change in the United States is very politicized. Republicans have broadly stood against efforts to combat climate change, citing economic concerns or disbelief in the phenomenon. Accordingly, less than a year after Obama signed it, President Donald Trump declared his intention to leave the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017. He argued that it would stifle American industry.

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump famously said at the time.

Enter the U.S. Climate Alliance. The Alliance was initiated in 2017 by California Gov. Jerry Brown to pick up the slack of the federal government’s former commitments. While the Alliance is still new, its members are on track to meet their goal of 26 to 28 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (as compared with 2005 levels) by 2025. Its members represent 40 percent of the total U.S. population, and a collective economy of nearly $9 trillion. There are currently 16 states and one territory (Puerto Rico) in the Alliance; New Jersey joined most recently.

In January of this year, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan became the third Republican to commit his state to the Alliance. Julie Cerqueira, executive director of the Alliance, ascribes this apparent bipartisanship to the group’s focus on taking action to address climate change itself, rather than the politics that have engulfed it.

The sun reflects off the water by the Coveside Crabs dock, behind their home and business.

“While the Alliance was launched in response to the President’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, it isn’t an anti-Trump movement,” Cerqueira said. “It depends upon bipartisan cooperation to deliver state climate and energy priorities and to make progress toward the goals of the Paris Agreement. Governors have joined because they know that climate change and its impacts don’t follow party lines; they’re looking beyond the politics and are committed to advancing climate change actions that make sense for their states.”

Furthermore, Trump’s anxieties about the incompatibility of emissions reductions and economic growth have proved untrue. An independent analysis by the Rhodium Group illustrates that between 2005 and 2015, the Alliance states collectively reduced their emissions by 50 percent more than non-Alliance states, without compromising economic growth; in fact, as its 2017 Annual Report states, “Alliance state economies have outperformed the rest of the nation.”

Of course, this should all be good news for Maryland’s crabbers. Because it has a direct impact on the warming of the globe’s waters, climate change is at the root of many of their problems, such as water quality and predation threats. However, saving this industry and their crabs will require action on the local level as much as the global.

According to Young and Carrion, these worldwide initiatives are less important than the Chesapeake Bay Program, an Environmental Protection Agency program that has restored the nation’s largest estuary and watershed since 1983. Young cited the program as responsible for the relative health of the bay, despite the threats imposed by climate change. President Trump plans to cut the program’s budget severely, or even to eliminate it entirely.

Young and Carrion use oyster shells to help sustainably filter the water when it is soft-shell crab season.

This possibility could spell doom for many of these Chesapeake crabbers, whose livelihoods depend on the health of the crab population. However, it is a reality that many in the crabbing community have been closed to. Choosing her words carefully, Carrion reports that even using the phrase “climate change” in a room full of crabbers can be “problematic.”

“Fisheries management should not be politicized, but it is dramatically politicized,” said Young. “We should be managing for what’s best for the species and its future.”

Politics aside, Young’s understanding of climate change is the driving force behind his sustainable harvest philosophy; in catching only the biggest crabs and in timing his catch strategically, he and Carrion have created a model that they believe takes responsibility for future generations of crabbers. They are hopeful, but the current state of politics has also left them cautious.

“We often hear that ours is the last generation to commercially crab and, if that’s true, then that’s terribly sad: to have something disappear that’s always been done in this state,” said Carrion. “Crabs are reflective of who and what we are as a people in Maryland.”

Article by Lisa Martine Jenkins. Audio by Korey Matthews. Video by Janay Reece, and Samuel Robinson. Photographs by Janay Reece, Samuel Robinson, and Lisa Martine Jenkins.

Find them on Twitter: @lisa_m_jenkins, @korey_matthews7, @janay_reece, and @shmuelson

This story was developed with training from the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Foundation.