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Blue News

1900700_10152273807345943_332332704_oPhoto by Nick Fornaro. 

The recent results of the annual blue crab winter dredge survey have us worried. The population has dropped below the safe level for adult females, which means it has officially become "depleted," and increased conservation may be needed. However, crabbing pressure has been within sustainable levels in recent years, so other factors besides harvest are also involved. 

As the Baltimore Sun recently stated: "It's clear something has fundamentally changed about the Maryland blue crab. Not the life cycle of the crab itself, of course, nor even the nature of the watermen who catch them, but the crab's habitat, which has been altered in a way that scientists are only now beginning to fully understand. The ability of crabs to bounce back from poor spawning years seems to have been greatly compromised by a less hospitable Chesapeake Bay."

Clearly one factor was the cold winter, which killed an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in Maryland waters. Normally, the crab population would be resilient to such natural factors, but it is likely that the continued poor quality of the habitat for crabs and other species in the Bay has made the population more vulnerable. For example, underwater grasses—where crabs like to take refuge—cover about 20 percent of the Bay bottom they did historically. Also, dead zones, caused by excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, reduce food for crabs by killing clams, worms, and other invertebrates, and crowd crabs into shallow water making them more vulnerable.  

Poor habitat conditions emphasize the need to implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint in order to reduce pollution and improve water quality and habitat. Of course, habitat improvements will take years, so in the short term, the only controllable factor we have is the harvest. The scientific community has called for a "risk-averse" approach to the crab fishery, and in response, the jurisdictions that manage the Bay’s crab fishery (Maryland, Virginia, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission) are planning to cut harvests by 10 percent in 2014. Exactly how they do that will depend on upcoming consultations with the crabbing industry.

Our viewpoint is as follows:

  • The only prudent management response is to be conservative with harvest to maintain as much spawning potential as possible to rebuild the population. Therefore, we support the jurisdictions plan to work with the industry to cut back on harvest by 10 percent.
  • A truly healthy crab population is not possible until water quality is improved and underwater grass bed habitat is restored. Improved habitat is essential to restoring resilience in the crab population. This underscores the urgent need to reduce pollution by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
  • The science-based guidelines for the blue crab fishery (target crabbing rate and population levels) provide solid boundaries for management and should be maintained. However, it is evident from the recent, wide fluctuations of the stock that these targets alone cannot achieve the level of productivity and stability that we need to achieve our goals.
  • We need to continue to improve harvest accountability and apply specific catch limits based on current population levels and allocate a portion to each jurisdiction.
  • Ultimately, we need to find a way to reduce total effort in the crab fishery so crabs are not caught up as soon as they reach legal size. Allowing crabs to live longer and grow larger will help stabilize the population and the fishery--more reproductive capacity for crabs and better economic conditions for Bay watermen.
  • With 25 years of data collected, the Chesapeake Bay winter dredge survey is a key tool in determining the health of the Bay’s blue crab population and provides the best information we have on the population of any Bay species.  

—Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Director of Fisheries

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Comments

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melody weed

Of great concern to me is the effect of the LNG Cove Point project. If it passes, there will be so much more pollution in the bay from the ships off loading waste before loading LNG. Also of concern is the possibility of a spill. This is just so wrong to the environment as a whole, the bay which is a national treasure and the habitat of the wildlife surrounding the area.

Harold R Scheibe

The environment in the bay, although hopefully recovering, I far too fragile to permit ANY additional potential for pollution. The cove project is one example and we must remain vigilant and strictly enforce the existing regulations as well. Bot only the crab population is at risk but the whole ecology. Even while recognizing that many people are dependent on the bay fishery for their livelihood, we must also reduce the crab harvest and should place an absolute ban on the taking of female crabs. Failing to do so will only hasten the demise of the crab fishery and result in the loss of the entire fishery industry. Tough decisions but necessary.

Jewel Barlow

Every citizen of the Bay watershed needs to undertake the responsibility to live in a way/place/arrangement where the first inch of rainfall on the building/grounds of their housing after a hiatus of 3 or more days of no precipitation goes into the water table by infiltration instead of directly downstream into a Bay tributary. This is the first order of business in my opinion as compared to trying to prevent the LNG Cove Point project from progressing under equally stringent performance stipulations.

Brad Knight Sr.

Seems to me that the crab population has been in decline since the moratorium on Striped Bass . I know from personal experience that the more Stripers I see the fewer crabs I catch . I believe that the loss of bay grasses as well as an over abundance of Rockfish is a major part of the decline in the Blue Crab population . A logical solution to the problem would be to allow all commercial fishermen to harvest a responsible poundage of Stripers yearly then close the harvesting for the remainer of the year or set harvesting dates and size limits for a fishing season the would replace part or most of the fall crabbing season until a viable amount of Stripers are harvested , by doing this the crabs and commercial fishermen both will benefit .

Skip Cousins

If you want to increase the Blue Crab population, the FIRST thing you need to do is stop listening to the "scientists" and start listening to the watermen! The watermen have worked these waters for dozens of decades and is their livelihood. I think they know a bit more about it then anyone else. Second thing they need to do is lift the moratorium on the Rockfish. These things are abundant now and it's almost a guarantee when you clean the fish, there are sure to be at least a half a dozen crabs in it's belly. I agree the bay does need to be cleaned up but, you don't clean the bay by dumping a bunch of crap from another state in our waters. All that does is introduce something from another ecosystem that may become harmful to our waters. (take a look at what the snakehead fish has done)If you want to clean up the bay you should start at the Susquehanna river. It doesn't take a genius to look at MapQuest, click on the satellite image and see all the crap coming down the bay from there. Maybe politicians should start thinking about the real problems with the bay and not what they can put in their own pocket! Just saying. :/

Debi Del Rossi

Stop the harvest of female crabs, they can reproduce hundreds of crabs each year. New York made it a fine to catch and sell the females. They had stations set-up to check all sea life before they could be sold, clams included for size. Helped the livelihood for the sea farmers since it helped the populations grow, also crabs help keep the bay clean by being bottom feeders. Of course stop dumping and polluting the bay, that's a no brainier. Waterman don't need a law to pass, just throw the females back so you can have a future in a historic occupation that you love and is needed. I grew up on the Great South Bay and knew many water-men that made a good living by following the rules, areas were closed so that they had time to repopulate and grow without tearing out the whole bottom ecosystem by over harvesting. You know the right thing to do, you don't have to wait for a law to pass to do it.

Jim Dugan

Why do the CBF and the MD DNR seem so resistant to push for immediate limits, if not a ban, on the harvesting of female crabs? Yes, crab management is a complex problem, but it certainly seems like the population has crashed. Even if the grasses are restored and the pollution controlled, the population is not going to come back unless there is a robust female population.

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