The Chesapeake Bay blue crab's population reached its highest levels in 19 years, with record numbers of the crustaceans counted throughout Maryland and Virginia.

The long-awaited winter dredge survey, which the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science conduct every year, indicated that 764 million crabs spent the cold months burrowed in the Chesapeake's bottom - nearly 66 percent more than last year. The good news should continue: The survey counted a record high number of juvenile crabs - 587 million, compared with last year's 207 million. The previous record of 512 million was reached in 1997.

The results, which the states released on April 19, are vindication for difficult management decisions made four years ago, when scientists declared the blue crab population was being overfished. Maryland and Virginia took emergency actions that year to curb the female harvest, shortening the season and enacting bushel limits based on previous catches. Virginia officials also eliminated the winter dredge fishery, which allowed crabbers to catch females as they hibernated.

"Maryland, Virginia, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and everyone on the management end seriously went to the mat on blue crabs," said Lynn Fegley, deputy fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Fegley, who managed the blue crab fishery in 2008, remembers the debates as "passionate." Watermen fought to defend their livelihoods, while fisheries managers and scientists tried to balance the painful cuts with the crab's biological needs. The first year, the lower Eastern Shore, where watermen catch mostly females, bore the brunt of the restrictions. Since then, Fegley said, Maryland has tried to make restrictions apply more evenly. And $15 million in crab-disaster relief from the federal government helped to soften the blow.

DNR officials estimated the Baywide harvest for 2011 to be 67.3 million pounds.

The winter dredge survey, which counts crabs in 1,500 different locations throughout the Bay when they are burrowed in the mud, gives what's generally considered to be an accurate assessment of the population.

Fegley said management would like to keep the fishing threshold at 25.5 percent of the population, which would leave 215 million female crabs in the water. In 2008, before the restrictions, watermen were taking at least 46 percent of the female crabs.

The new threshold for overfishing females is 34 percent. The male population appears to be healthy so far, Fegley said.

During the 2008-09 survey, researchers counted 400 million crabs. The next year, they counted 658 million and attributed the jump to the management decisions two years before, which gave the crabs time to spawn and the smaller crabs a chance to grow up. The 2010-2011 numbers were not as good: 460 million. But, researchers said, that was based on a bad weather year.

Despite two storms that washed sediments into the Chesapeake two months before the survey began, the crabs more than held their own. The only negative news was a decline in spawning-age females from 190 million to 97 million crabs. DNR officials attributed that to natural yearly variations.