The Bay’s blue crab stock doesn’t appear to be getting any worse, but more than three years after states acted to control harvest pressure, scientists say there’s still no clear evidence the population has shown signs of recovery.

While some indicators of the crab stock appear to have improved slightly—multiple surveys suggest more baby crabs were found in the Bay during the past year—another key survey shows that the number of females that survive to spawn may be declining.

“At best, the blue crab may have stabilized, but it’s still well below the long-term average, so no one should relax,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “It clearly warrants our long-term attention.”

But she, along with scientists and some other observers, believe attention on the Bay’s most valuable commercial fishery has waned since the the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Commission (BBCAC) recommended slashing fishing pressure by 15 percent in December 2000 to stem a downward spiral in the crab population.

The goal of the action was to prevent overfishing of the stock and eventually double the number of female crabs that survive to spawn each year. Fish management agencies implemented those cuts, but they proved controversial among watermen who have become increasingly dependent on blue crabs as other Bay species have declined.

Last year, citing tight budgets, the states stopped funding BBCAC, which had been created by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a panel representing state legislatures, to bring together fishery managers and stakeholders to forge Baywide consensus and set priorities for blue crab research and management.

In the past year, though, researchers from around the Bay say funding for blue crab research, including efforts to better estimate populations and assess the effectiveness of management actions, has been reduced.

“We have asked watermen to take significant cuts,” said Tom Miller, a fisheries scientist with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Studies. “We’re not in a position to tell them one way or another whether that was effective.”

The annual blue crab report released in June by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, made up of and state and federal scientists, said that blue crab abundance in 2003 increased for the second straight year and said that crabs were above the Bay’s overfishing threshold for the first time since 1997.

Many scientists from around the Bay warn that it is too early to suggest the population is on its way to recovery. “It’s not worse,” said Chris Bonzek, a fisheries scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who chairs the stock assessment committee. “But two years don’t make a trend.”

The blue crab report, based on four different surveys, also cautioned that results among the surveys were not uniform and that the population remained at risk of a stock collapse.

“States should, at a minimum, keep all current management measures in place,” the report said, noting that the ultimate goal of the fishing restrictions—doubling the blue crab spawning stock—has not yet been met.

Indeed, scientists who attended the June meeting of the Blue Crab Technical Advisory Committee—a scientific panel which once advised BBCAC—said it was unclear whether the changes in abundance reflect the impact of management actions, or stem from natural year-to-year fluctuations in reproduction, which is heavily influenced by weather conditions.

Other factors, such as Hurricane Isabel, which kept some fishermen off the Bay for weeks, may also have reduced fishing pressure on the crabs.

“If the regulations were effective, we’ve made real progress,” said John Hoenig, a VIMS fisheries scientist who has been studying the blue crab population. “If they weren’t effective, then next year we’re back to the same old thing.”

The blue crab report also said the number of adult female crabs had trended slightly upward for three years, although their numbers were still below the long-term average, as they had been for 10 of the past 12 years. While that trend was seen in three of the four surveys used to compile the report, the fourth survey—the Virginia trawl survey—shows no change, and a possible decline.

That’s important, said Rom Lipcius, a VIMS blue crab researcher, because the Virginia survey is conducted in the state’s blue crab spawning sanctuary during the summer as the crabs are migrating to the mouth of the Bay to spawn.

The other surveys of adult females catch only “potential spawners,” Lipcius said, because they still have to run the gauntlet of crab pots, dredges, and scrapes and other fishing gear to get to spawning areas.

“The spawning stock in the spawning grounds has not improved,” said Lipcius, who is completing an analysis of 16 years of trawl survey data. An earlier review had suggested that after a sharp decline in 1992, the spawning stock had stabilized at a low level. “But it may have actually declined,” he said.

If so, then the main goal of the fishing restrictions—reducing the mortality rate among the spawning females to stabilize the population—has not yet been seen.

In another hint that female survival might be lower than previously thought, Hoenig said that only 2 percent of adult female blue crabs tagged in November 2001 survived until the following autumn. “It’s shockingly low,” Hoenig said. “That’s one of the lowest numbers I’ve dealt with in any fishery.”

Hoenig cautioned against drawing conclusions based on one year of data, but said 2003 figures would be available later this year.

Blue crabs are highly resilient, he said, calling them “cockroaches of the sea” because they mature rapidly and each female has the potential to produce millions of larvae. Still, he added, “I’m worried about the stock collapsing. I think a lot of people are. But I can’t tell you for sure that it will collapse.”

Much of the murkiness stems from the lack of good data about crab populations and the impact of crab management. Despite actions taken by the states, a report by the technical committee released last year said it’s impossible to say whether those measures have actually resulted in the predicted reduction in fishing effort.

It also said there was a need for better data to track and estimate the status of the stock. Information used to assess the status of the blue crab stock comes from a mix of surveys, most of which were created for other purposes and therefore may not reflect the overall condition of the population.

Dealing with those issues had been part of an “action plan” written by the now-defunct BBCAC to improve long-term management of the fishery, but they have gone largely unaddressed.

“There was a clear de-emphasis in blue crab policy priority a year ago when BBCAC was disbanded,” said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

When that happened, he said, the main actions taken were those aimed at getting the blue crab from the brink of a stock collapse. “The political price that had to be paid for that interim action was a reduction in support for revamping the management of the fishery to achieve longer-term goals,” Goldsborough said.

As envisioned in BBCAC’s full action plan, the long-term management goal was to restructure the blue crab management process—with stakeholder input—in a way that would reduce fishing pressure on the crabs, while increasing income for watermen.

Instead of pursuing that goal, Goldsborough said, the jurisdictions have produced only a “mishmash” of policies.

“The best thing you can say about the blue crab population is that it is stable at a low level,” he said. “We’re near a historic low level and we’ve been at it for four years now.”

A.C. Carpenter, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, said the jurisdictions deserve credit for acting when they did or “things might well have run amuck. We’re not out of the woods yet,” he added. “We don’t know what is going to happen the rest of the year.”