The Baywide blue crab harvest increased last year, but remained well below the Chesapeake’s historic average, figures compiled by the states show.

The total Chesapeake Bay harvest was 55.6 million pounds in 2002, up from 53.6 million in 2001, but well below levels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when annual harvests often topped 90 million pounds.

The breakdown, by jurisdiction:

  •  Maryland’s 2002 harvest was 25 million pounds, up from 24.5 million the previous year.
  • Virginia’s 2002 harvest was 28.2 million pounds, up from 26.7 million.
  • The Potomac River harvest was 2.45 million pounds, up from 2.36 million.

Blue crabs are the Bay’s most valuable remaining fishery, but surveys in recent years have suggested that the population is near historic lows.

Acting through the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, officials from Maryland and Virginia in December 2000 agreed to impose new regulations that would decrease harvest pressure on blue crabs by 15 percent over three years.

The goal of the regulations was to double the stock of spawning females, something that should result in a larger, more stable population over time. Scientists say that as the population grows, the reduced fishing pressure should yield a larger catch, as the same number of hours spent harvesting—or the same number of pots—will produce more crabs.

Because of continued signs of problems with the blue crab population, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission fully phased in the 15 percent reductions in 2002—a year ahead of schedule.

Preliminary results from the annual winter dredge survey suggests the effort may be starting to work. Several key stock indicators appear to have risen, which could translate into a slightly higher harvest this year, although officials caution that the changes are small, and scientists have not completed their analysis of other blue crab monitoring data.

As this year’s season opened, all three jurisdictions were maintaining their 15 percent reduction efforts, although some altered their regulations slightly.

Last year, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission imposed a 5.25-inch minimum size for adult male and female crabs beginning Aug. 1. This season began with a 5-inch size limit for males only, which will increase to 5.5 inches Aug. 1.

The commission will also reduce the number of pots allowed by 5 percent from 2001 levels; last year it cut the number of pots 10 percent from 2001 levels. Overall, the changes should maintain the overall goal of reducing fishing pressure by 15 percent, according to the commission.

Last year, Maryland enacted what amounted to a 17 percent reduction in fishing pressure. Amid complaints from some watermen and Eastern Shore lawmakers, the state this year plans to relax that somewhat to a 15 percent reduction.

Under the state’s new regulations, hard crabs as small as 5 inches across may be harvested until July 15, after which the minimum size would return to 5.25 inches. Peelers as small as 3.25 inches across may be taken until July 15, after which they would have to be at least 3.5 inches. Soft crabs 3.5 inches may be taken all season long. The regulations also include work closures on the second and third Thursdays in November.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission did not change any crab regulations for this year.