Tuesday, November 16, 2010

4. Blue Crab B.S. on the Chesapeake Bay*

**Cross-posted with National Geographic's MyWonderfulWorld blog in honor of Geography Awareness Week** 
Laura_Newcomer_Pic1.pngEvery morning on my walk to work in downtown Washington, D.C., I pass an advertisement for Capital One Bank that says, "Easier to find than blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay". And each time I wonder, What does that mean? 

It seems obvious, perhaps, that we're to assume there are a lot of blue crabs in the Bay, and that the bank has even more branches than that. But unless we possess pre-established knowledge about the status of blue crabs in the Chesapeake, how can we assume this to be true?

The Blue Crab's Back-Story

Let's start with a quick introduction to the state of blue crabs in the Bay. Blue crabs are the most valuable commercial fish commodity in the Bay-- it's estimated that the Chesapeake supplies more than one-third of the nation's blue crab catch, to the tune of about $50 million per year -- but since the early 1990s the population has been increasingly taxed by harvest pressures, habitat loss, and water pollution.

Since 2002, crab abundance has remained consistently lower than past averages. In 2008, a winter survey estimated the Bay's blue crab population to be 283 million crabs-- only about 30% of 1990 population estimates.Laura_Newcomer_Pic2.png

But it isn't all doom and gloom for the cobalt crustaceans. In the wake of 2008's abysmal numbers, officials began a series of management practices, including limitations on catch size and making some areas of the Bay off-limits to commercial crabbing. As a result, the estuary's crab population has doubled in the last two years, reaching its highest level since 1997.

These improvements are laudable, to be sure, but their successes should not distract from the fact that the crab population is still nowhere near what it used to be--particularly when we consider that in 1997, the Bay's blue crab had already taken substantial hits.

The Production of False Geographic Knowledge

Thus, it's not as if blue crabs have been doing so consistently well over the years that we can take their proliferation as a given. But that's exactly the tact this advertisement seems to take. The ad suggests that the crabs are doing just fine-- great, even-- and, by implication, that there's no reason why we as consumer-citizens should give the crustaceans a second thought (I readily understand that this was likely not the ad's intended message. However, I argue that the ad's creators are responsible not only for the explicit but also the implicit information that they convey, because this implicit information is, in nearly all cases, constructed no less intentionally than the more overt messages).

Laura_Newcomer_Pic3.gifIn this way, the ad actively produces geographic knowledge-- only this knowledge is largely inaccurate. The ad relies on its viewers, as residents of the Bay watershed (the entire District of Columbia lies within the watershed), to feel an affinity for the Bay (and, by extension, the bank that associates with it)-- but it also capitalizes on the fact that most city residents are probably not experts on the blue crab and will therefore take the advertisement at face value. In this way, the advertisement exploits its viewers' lack of knowledge and creates a false set of geographic assumptions.

Therefore, I argue that this advertisement is, at its core, irresponsible. Because, the way we talk about things, determines the way we think about them, determines the way we treat them. If we talk about blue crabs as if they're effortlessly proliferating, we will think this true, and we will be less inclined to take steps toward conserving the crabs (and, by extension, their fellow Bay species, who are struggling under the same pressures).

In reality, the Chesapeake Bay needs our time, attention, and efforts at preservation-- now more than ever. To suggest otherwise is not only inaccurate, it invalidates a watershed that is fundamentally important for a huge variety of species, ecosystems, communities, and livelihoods. (For more information on why the Chesapeake Bay matters, start here).

The Take-Home Messages

So, what are the take-away lessons from this advertisement and this post? There are several:

1.    Conduct your own research. Most especially (and perhaps this goes without saying), do not trust the information contained in advertisements; it is designed to sell you something. It is therefore highly subject to manipulation and should not be taken at face value.
2.    Consider content and audience when discussing geographic topics (or, really, any topic). It is irresponsible to assume geographic knowledge in any context-- and, conversely, it is irresponsible to assume the lack of geographic knowledge and to exploit that ignorance in the hopes of winning public favor and/or economic gain.
3.    Care for the Chesapeake Bay. It's worth sustaining--As is, of course, the star of this blog post: the blue crab. In fact, the blue crab is one of several keystone species in the Bay. The Bay is struggling, but it is not beyond saving-- and even busy, remote individuals can have an impact. For a list of easy ways you can get involved in the preservation of the Bay watershed, go here.
4.    Live curious. Notice how even everyday encounters can lead to a lesson in geography and increased knowledge of regional issues. Feel free to share your own observations, either with National Geographic or at my own blog, LightInfinityExpress. Thanks for reading--

Laura_Newcomer_Pic4.jpg*Of course by "B.S." I mean "Bank Statements."

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Save the Bay (founded by the CBF)

National Geographic Article, "Why Can't We Save the Bay?" http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2005/06/chesapeake-bay/horton-text

Chesapeake Bay Program

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