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UMCES microbiologist tracks disease in blue crabs

October 31, 2016

SCIENCE IN THE FIRST PERSON

Molecular biologist Eric Schott is examining whether fishing activity increases the transmission of the virus in the wild, in hopes that there is a way to tweak fishing practices to reduce mortality and improve the harvest. The crab fishery in the C

Eric Schott
Molecular biologist
Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology

"There’s a real awakening in the importance of diseases for understanding ecology. I’m working on a virus in the blue crab that was first identified in the mid 1970s. No one understood until recently that it could have a great potential to impact blue crab populations because we didn’t have the molecular tools to study it.   

Several years ago, the hatchery at IMET produced a couple hundred thousand crabs a year for laboratory and ecological research, but wild crabs brought in as breeding stock were dying, most of them from one particular virus. We’ve now shown that this reovirus is present in one in five crabs along Atlantic Coast, and we want to know if it is as lethal in the wild as it is in aquaculture. 

People have been fishing crabs for hundreds of years, and this virus has probably affected crab populations forever. Blue crabs are fished on the coasts of two continents, ranging from Argentina all the way to Canada. What we discover could be important for crab fishery management in two hemispheres.

We’re looking into whether fishing activity increases the transmission of the virus in the wild, in hopes that there is a way to tweak fishing practices to reduce mortality and improve the harvest. The crab fishery in the Chesapeake Bay is managed by restricting the harvest of females and undersize crabs, so those crabs go back in the water. 

Crabs don’t normally interact in the wild, but they aggregate and fight in crab traps. So there’s the potential for females and undersized crabs to pick up pathogens in traps, and then spread those pathogens back into the wild.”