Buoyed by evidence of a surge in the Chesapeake Bay crab population, fisheries regulators in Maryland and Virginia have approved modest increases in harvest limits for the rest of this year.

Maryland and Virginia fisheries managers approved modest increases in the number of bushels of crabs watermen can harvest daily. The winter dredge survey finding a 60 percent increase in the Bay's blue crab population over the previous year prompted the actions. (Dave Harp)The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to increase the maximum daily catch of crabs in November by anywhere from 2 bushels to 20 bushels, depending on the number of crab pots a waterman can legally fish.

Virginia’s harvest limits for November, the last month of the crabbing season, now match those for most of the rest of the season, which runs from mid-March to the end of November. Only in the last two weeks of March, when the season is just beginning, is the allowable catch smaller. From April 1 to Nov. 30, the limits now range from 10 bushels a day for watermen licensed to use as many as 85 crab pots, up to 47 bushels a day for anyone authorized to deploy as many as 425 pots at a time.

Rob O’Reilly, the VMRC’s fisheries director, called the increases a “very modest change” in explaining them to the commission. He estimated that the higher November bushel limits would have resulted in a 0.5% increase in the overall harvest in 2018, had they been in effect then. But O’Reilly said this year’s harvest is almost certainly going to be larger than last year’s, given the greater abundance of crabs found during last winter’s dredge survey.

The bi-state survey, which samples for crabs during the winter in 1,500 sites around the Bay, estimated the population to be the highest since 2012 and a 60-percent increase over the previous year. The number of spawning-age female crabs, deemed critical to maintaining the population, had increased by 30 percent over the previous year and was close to the target scientists had set for ensuring the stock's stability.

Chris Moore, a fisheries scientist in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office, issued a statement supporting the Virginia commission’s decision to ease harvest limits toward the end of this season.

“These modest changes will allow Virginia’s watermen to harvest more blue crabs,” he said, “and are entirely appropriate given strong crab numbers found in the recent winter dredge survey.”

The states imposed significant catch restrictions in 2008 after harvests plummeted and scientists warned the Bay's crab stock was in danger of collapse. Managers since have mostly maintained those curbs, which largely focused on trying to rebuild the spawning stock.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources decided earlier this year to ease its catch caps on female crabs this summer. The DNR posted a public notice May 30 that daily bushel limits for harvesting female crabs would be relaxed for almost all types of commercial crabbing beginning July 1. The allowable catch of female crabs increases in steps from the beginning of the season April 1 until the end of October, then declines for the final month of November.

Mike Luisi, assistant DNR fisheries director, described the female crab limit changes as “slight” increases over those that had been in place in 2018. 

“We were expanding very cautiously,” he said, “understanding that, with higher abundance, there was some room for that.”

Under the DNR decision, for example, a waterman licensed to use 300 crabpots may land up to 12 bushels of female crabs daily in July and August, two more than at the same time last year. In September and October, the daily limit increases to 24 bushels, five more than last year. In November, the 300-pot crabber's daily female catch limit drops to 5 bushels, still one more than last year.  By comparison, watermen permitted to put out up to 900 crabpots can land 20 bushels of female crabs daily in July and August, 39 in September and October, and 15 in November. Those totals are three to four bushels higher this year than last.

The bi-state Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing on the Bay tributary dividing Maryland and Virginia, has decided not to change its female harvest limits this year.  

Martin Gary, the commission's executive secretary, said the commission voted in early June to maintain the status quo per the recommendations of an expert panel. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, made up of state fisheries managers and federal and state scientists, concluded after reviewing the winter survey results and other data that new catch restrictions were not warranted. But the committee nevertheless urged managers to "maintain a cautious, risk-averse approach in the 2019 season."

Under the Potomac River rules, watermen licensed to deploy 300 crabpots may harvest up to 12 bushels of female crabs a day. Those permitted 400 pots may take 16 bushels, and those allowed 500 pots may land 20 bushels of female crabs. 

Last year, 55 million pounds of crabs were harvested Baywide. That was slightly more than in 2017, but below the long-term average for harvests since 1990.  Maryland accounted for 60 percent of the 2018 harvest.