Last year’s never-ending loop of storms may have rattled the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, but it didn’t scuttle the estuary’s blue crab population.A female crab dredged from the York River in Virginia during an annual winter survey displays a numerical tag placed on it by a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. (Dave Harp)

Results from the annual, Baywide winter crab survey, released May 6, showed a 60% increase in the crustacean’s numbers over 2018. At 594 million crabs, it was the highest count since 2012.

“This is good news,” said Ellen Bolen, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates the fishery in the commonwealth’s waters. “But crab stocks can vary like they have in the past, so we want to make sure we have a balanced plan going forward to ensure the stability of this resource.”

Blue crab populations can vary widely from year to year, experts say, because they are heavily influenced by climate conditions. Young crabs spend the first several weeks of their lives drifting in the ocean after they are spawned during the summer and fall, and weather conditions greatly affect the number that return to the Bay.

Genine McClair, blue crab program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, spent the winter worrying that the strong currents produced by last year’s rain had pushed the juveniles too far out to sea.

Instead, their abundance nearly doubled, to 323 million, according to the survey. That figure is seen as a good omen for the crab harvest in late summer and fall.

In the meantime, there are plenty of adult crabs for watermen to dredge. A mild winter ensured better survival, producing an estimated 271 million adult males and females — a figure that is well above the 30-year average of 199 million crabs.

The bonanza has already begun at one crab-processing company on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“You’ve had more crabs come ashore this year than any year in 54 years,” said Terry Vincent, owner of Lindy’s Seafood in Dorchester County. “Nobody’s seen this.”

Last year’s Baywide harvest was 2% higher than the previous year, the survey showed. Watermen hauled in 55 million pounds of crabs, which was on par with the totals from the previous four years.

The Maryland season runs from April 1 to Dec. 15. The Virginia season is from March 17 to Nov. 30.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Maryland DNR have been conducting the survey since 1990. Investigators use crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites around the Bay during the winter, when crabs are typically buried in sediment and not moving.

To boost the number of crabs after a decade of paltry counts, management agencies since 2008 have imposed regulations offering greater protection to female crabs with the hope that more would survive and reproduce. The number of spawning-age females was estimated at 190 million in the most recent survey, well above the “minimum safe” threshold of 70 million crabs.

The survey’s results offer “further proof and a shining example that our efforts to protect Maryland's blue crab population, while ensuring the health of our state’s most important natural asset, have been successful,” Gov. Larry Hogan said.