This year has been tough for crabs, tough for watermen—and even tough for those trying to manage them.
The latest assessment of the Bay’s blue crab stock has again found that the population of the Chesapeake’s most valuable commercial species remains near an all-time low.
Meanwhile, this spring’s cool temperatures sharply reduced crab catches. Things have been so bad in recent years that Maryland and Virginia watermen for the first time became eligible for federal disaster relief.
Finally, the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, which forged the first-ever Baywide consensus on managing the beleaguered crustacean, will disband after a final meeting in July, a victim of state budget cuts.
In 2000, the committee reached a Baywide agreement on what constitutes an overfished blue crab stock, and also achieved an agreement on a lower catch target that was aimed at doubling the spawning stock of blue crabs to restore healthier population levels.
Achieving that lower target required that states reduce fishing pressure by 15 percent, something they have accomplished over the past two-and-a-half years.
The most recent annual assessment of the blue crab stock, conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, shows that the actions may have stabilized the population, which had been in decline since the mid-1990s, but at a low level of abundance.
The scientific committee, which makes its judgments based on four different blue crab surveys conducted around the Bay each year, concluded that the level of risk to the stock remains high and that current management efforts should stay in place.
For age zero crabs, the surveys continued to show that the population remains near the low level observed in recent years. This may suggest the decline of the stock has been halted, but the population has stabilized at a below-average level, scientists said.
One-year-old crabs are also below average in all surveys, although some surveys indicated a slight increase in the most recent year. Likewise, surveys showed adult female crabs remained below average, but they may have increased slightly in the most recent year.
Overall, the survey showed that while the crab population has moved slightly away from the overfishing mark, it is still above the precautionary threshold set in 2000.
“It looks like the population has stabilized, but is at a very depressed level,” said Derek Orner, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, which coordinated the annual stock assessment.
Besides maintaining current catch restrictions, the report also called for the development of a long-term management strategy to provide guidance for rebuilding the crab stock.
Meanwhile, the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee was scheduled to hold its final meeting July 8 in Annapolis. The committee was created by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three states, after years of concern over declining blue crab harvests.
It forged the first Baywide scientific and management consensus about the status of the stock and management needs. That led to the establishment of the overfishing threshold, as well as the precautionary target that drives current blue crab fishery management.
The committee had been funded with $150,000 each from Virginia and Maryland, but that money was cut a year ago because of state budget shortfalls. The commission funded the committee on its own for the past year. Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission, said the group would continue to operate a scientific blue crab advisory committee which will offer advice on blue crab management, and will make annual reports at one of the commission’s regular meetings.
Also this spring, watermen in both Virginia and Maryland learned they would get their first-ever federal disaster relief payments because of continued low blue crab harvests. In Maryland, watermen will be eligible for about $500 each, and in Virginia, payments were expected to range from $300 to $950, depending on their level of involvement in the fishery.
Watermen have long complained that Congress overlooks their hardships while routinely giving money to other industries such as airlines and agriculture. Congress placed $5 million into the National Marine Fisheries Services’ budget in February to help the blue crab fishery, said Jeff Brown, a federal programs officer with the fisheries service in St. Petersburg, FL.
Virginia and Maryland each got about $1.2 million from the funds. Other states eligible for disaster assistance are New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Things weren’t improving this spring: Officials in both states said catches were below average as a result of cool temperatures, which reduce crab activity, and sometimes cause them to burrow into the bottom, making them difficult to catch.