The Chesapeake Bay’s overall population of blue crabs increased 38 percent over last year, with high numbers of juvenile crabs that will likely be ready to harvest by late summer, according to the annual Winter Dredge Survey. Maryland and Virginia use the survey to count crabs burrowed in the mud and estimate population size.
The estimated total number of crabs in the Chesapeake is now at 410 million. That number is than the 454 million-crab average in the 26-year history of the survey. But not by that much, and it’s certainly a comeback over the past couple of years. After a high of nearly 800 million in 2012, the crab population nosedived in 2013. Last year, both states and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission instituted a 10 percent cut in the harvest.
Officials in both states say management actions had something to do with the rebound, though they cautioned the population of the Chesapeake’s iconic but volatile crustacean hasn’t entirely bounced back yet.
“This is a step in the right direction but we are not out of the woods,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull. “Responsible management dictates a cautious approach as we continue to work to build a healthy crab stock and to maintain a sustainable fishery. More work needs to be done to boost us above modest abundance levels.”
Adult male crab abundance was up 49 percent for 2014, to 43.7 million. Spawning-age females were at 101 million, a 47 percent increase, but still well below the target of 215 million.
While management decisions affect the number of female crabs, the fluctuations in juvenile crabs is largely due to nature. In 2014, juvenile abundance was 269 million, a 35 percent increase from 2014. When female crabs spawn, tides carry their offspring into the ocean. The tiny crabs rely on winds and tides to return to the Chesapeake Bay. A change of one or 2 degrees in the climate or volatile weather patterns can dictate how many will return.
“The blue crabs are a typical live-fast-die-young species. They have a short life and produce a lot of young. And they have that oceanic component in their life cycle,” said Lynn Fegley, deputy fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “On the juvenile side, we just got a gift from Mother Nature.”
It would be one of the few gifts this year. Colder-than-usual temperatures, including a frozen-over Chesapeake, resulted in a 19 percent mortality for crabs this winter. On the Maryland end of the bay that number was as high as 28 percent.
Watermen in Maryland and Virginia have complained about cuts to the crab harvest that began in 2008, when the Bay’s blue crab fishery was declared a disaster worthy of emergency federal funds. Since then, many watermen have been trying to lift those restrictions. DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell briefed sportfishing and watermen on the results in May. He said neither group made any specific recommendations on lifting restrictions or making them tighter. Any changes to quotas and management would be made after July 1.
The 2014 Baywide harvest was 35 million pounds, slightly less than 2013’s 37 million pounds. The exploitation rate, or removal of crabs, was at a level of 17 percent, well below the target of 25.5 percent and the maximum safe level of 34 percent.
“Recognizing that the fishing level is below the target, I expect we will be having that conversation,” O’Connell said. ‘The management response has not yet been determined by the bay jurisdictions…. We’re well below the fishing target, which is great news. We’re still not at the point where we want to be, so it will be a delicate balance.”
O’Connell said any changes to quotas and management will be made after July 1.