Bay blue crab numbers at 2nd highest level since 1997
Conservation measures credited with offsetting mortality of harsh winter
The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population is continuing to rebound.
The annual winter dredge survey indicates that the signature crustacean's population is at its second-highest level since 1997. The surveyors estimated there are 460 million crabs in the Chesapeake - nearly double the number in 2007, when the population was heading for a crisis. The next year, the governors of both states, as well as leaders of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, vowed to reduce fishing pressure by 34 percent through a series of restrictions.
Those changes were a bitter pill for watermen in both states, already reeling from high fuel prices and losses in other business, such as charter-boat fishing and dredging for oysters. But, officials said, the restrictions were needed to ensure the fishery would be viable for future generations. And, it appears, that is what has come to pass.
"Today we continue to realize the benefits of the very tough decisions we made three years ago - decisions that are bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said at a press conference announcing the results.
O'Malley said that residents can rest assured that the state will never again allow more than 60 percent of the crab population to be fished, as had happened in the past. The target is not to fish more than 46 percent of the population in a given year.
Preliminary harvest numbers for blue crabs are hovering in the 88 million - 94 million pound range, the highest harvest numbers since 1993. The 2010-11 results mark the third time since the early 1990s that the adult population was greater than the target of 200 million crabs and the harvest less than the 46 percent target.
Since 1990, researchers in Maryland and Virginia have been venturing out to 1,500 sites in the Chesapeake to count blue crabs as they are hibernating in the mud from December to March. They scoop up the crabs in a dredge and count them. From there, they can estimate how many crabs are in the Bay. The survey is remarkably accurate and remains one of the best predictors of the coming season.
The results were not as good as the 2009-10 numbers, which showed a whopping 658 million crabs in the Bay. But this year presented some major challenges. Warmer than usual temperatures going into the winter intensified the shock when the colder than normal December, January and February hit the Bay, according to Tom Miller, professor of fisheries at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. DNR Fisheries Director Tom O'Connell said that the weather pattern killed 31 percent of the adult crabs in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake, which is generally colder than Virginia's. In comparison, only about 10 percent of the crabs were lost to the cold in 2009-10.
Steven G. Bowman, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said the changes that the two states put in place in 2008 likely made a big difference in salvaging the population, given the bad weather.
"It was a harsh winter and crab mortality was higher than normal. In fact, it was the worst we've seen since 1996," he said in a statement. "Thankfully, we acted when we did in 2008 to begin rebuilding the crab population, or the crab census results we see today would be grim indeed."
The states have left open the possibility of tweaking the 2008 restrictions. They did so last year at the request of watermen. Maryland opened a nine-day catching period for female blue crabs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4. Virginia has already made a similar tweak, extending by 14 days the period for catching female sponge crabs. Those crabs have egg masses attached to them and are ready to give birth.
Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John M.R. Bull said his state is not planning any overhaul of the 2008 restrictions because they are clearly working. The commission is considering two minor tweaks, at the request of Virginia watermen. They may expand very slightly the boundary of the Northern Neck sanctuary, and they may close a sanctuary on May 15 instead of May 5.
Neither move, Bull said, would have much of an effect on harvest pressure.
- Category: Fisheries
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