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Trouble Brewing for Blue Crabs

8.25crabs
Perhaps the most iconic critter associated with the Chesapeake Bay is the blue crab. Despite the Bay’s ongoing pollution and other problems, crabs remain among the largest and most profitable fisheries in the Bay.

And why not? Who doesn’t like feasting on a delicious crab cake dinner, a creamy bowl of she-crab soup, or a pot of freshly steamed hard crabs, then washing it down with a frosty beverage?

But here’s the rub: the Bay’s crab population is at worrisome low levels. In fact, it has been a terrible crabbing year, and many people are concerned.

TotaljuvenileThe troubling situation actually was anticipated by watermen who reported very low catches last year, and by scientists who conduct an annual survey to assess the Bay’s crab population and set science-based harvest limits. The most recent survey found that the number of baby crabs had dropped by about 80% from the year before.

Interestingly, the survey also found the number of adult female crabs had increased about 50% from the previous year, although still at levels far below what managers consider ideal.

According to Bay scientists, recent low crab numbers are most likely due to low numbers of adult females, unfavorable weather, and predation.

Low numbers of female crabs in the Bay has been a major concern for more than a decade, leading Femalespawn Maryland and Virginia fisheries managers in 2008 to crack down on the annual catch with restrictions. Among other measures, Virginia halted its winter dredge fishery, a long-used practice in which watermen employ heavy metal rakes, or dredges, to scrape up hibernating crabs from the bottom of the Bay in winter. Most of those hibernating crabs typically were females.

The harvest restrictions by both states seem to have made a difference: annual surveys since 2009 generally have shown a rebound in total crabs and females – until last year, when the density of female crabs dropped significantly. Fortunately, the 2013 survey found female numbers were ticking up again.

But weather also influences crab numbers, and wind and current patterns offshore last fall failed to push crab larvae inshore and into the Bay, a natural movement critical for Chesapeake crabs to be plentiful.

Another key factor is the survival of baby crabs in the Bay. Juvenile crabs have fewer places to hide from predators today because the Bay has less underwater grass than it once had -- only about 15% of historical acreage. And when there are large numbers of predatory fish in the Bay like there were in 2012 (big years for rockfish and red drum), lots of baby crabs get eaten.

Rockfish also have been more aggressively targeting small crabs because of the Bay’s reduced numbers of Atlantic menhaden, their normal fare.

TotalestimateFisheries managers know that multiple years of good reproduction are needed to rebuild the crab population and to make crabbing more consistent and sustainable. Yet despite the latest troubling data on crabs, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), which regulates crab harvests in the state, will consider relaxing restrictions on winter crab dredging at a meeting later this month.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) does not support reopening the winter dredge fishery at this time, believing that only when the Bay’s crab population is healthier should that option be considered. A healthy blue crab population and a thriving fishery both are integral to the health of the Bay. In order to achieve a balance, a combination of conservative management and improvement in the blue crab’s habitat in the Bay is needed.

CBF’s stance:

• Virginia should not reopen the winter dredge fishery at this time.

• Virginia and Maryland should continue using scientific data to set sustainable crabbing limits.

• The Bay states and EPA should aggressively implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint to reduce pollution and restore the Bay, including the Bay’s underwater grasses.

• Fisheries managers must restore and protect critical forage fish populations, starting with menhaden.

If you agree and want to help ensure the Bay’s crab population grows and recovers for all to enjoy, send a note by Oct. 21 to: Robert L. O’Reilly, VMRC Fisheries Management Division, 2600 Washington Avenue, 3rd Floor, Newport News, Virginia 23607.

The commission will hold a public hearing and decide the matter on Oct. 22.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo: Kristi Carroll/CBF. Charts: Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources)

Comments

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This is not rocket science people....stop dredging, stop the consumption of female crabs and harvestable numbers will rise dramatically. There are strick regulations on fishing stripped bass etc., and the same needs to be done with the crabbing industry which will result in both environmental and economic advantages in the long run. Crabs, oysters etc. they are the filters of the Bay, kill them and in turn you kill the Bay.

I would like to see four changes: 1. Sale/use of females should be illegal. 2. Pre-steaming crabs should be illegal. It allows commercial vendors to overbuy as they cut their potential loss of live crabs. Besides, re-steamed crabs are disgusting. 3. "all you can eat" for a one price should be illegal. I know it started to allow vendors to sell off excess purchases, but it has become a feature of its own. 4. Violation of size restrictions should trigger huge fines for sellers, huge, increasing fines.

The "what you can do to help" part should be BOLDER and clear cut. If you agree? Just say, do this to help. Where is John Kabler when you need him? God bless his soul. Keep up the good fight guys ! Thanks !

Jimmy potting (the act of baiting crab pots with male crabs to catch virginal females trying to mate for the first time) should be illegal. These sooks are being plucked from the bay without ever having the opportunity to reproduce. I think removing any female from the bay is harmful for the population but this is just criminal.

Um BH there is NO crab dredging allowed in the Chesapeake Bay, and has not been since 2008 as per the article.

Striped Bass have been regulated, and while their population has risen, they have also consumed more crab which is natural for them.

Why isn't pollution in there as a "must do" thing? Pollution causes far more problems, than a few watermen trying to earn a living.

The government has regulated the watermen right out of business to the point there aren't that many left. Back in the 80's, on any given day, one could find upward of a hundred workboats in downtown Hampton. Now you will find less than a dozen. If the watermen have diminished so much, why are there fewer crabs? Maybe it wasn't over harvesting at all.

Just more people talking about something they know little about. Its not the crabbers its you and the scientists. you dont want spots on your apples and you want a nice green lawn. put that together with the over repopulation of stripped bass and their is your pivot point. so dont look at the comm. fisherman look inward at yourself

you never see cbf say anything about the big plants and companies on the bay either.is it because they don't do anything wrong or is it that they donate big bucks to the cbf?if overfishing brought the crab population down then what brought the stone crab population down?and the same with spider crabs?there has been no sale for stone crabs and spiders but their population has plummeted too...how do you explain this?you cant blame the watermen so you don't mention it.why does the bay water glow bright green with phosphorous?watermen didn't do that and don't try to blame it on farm run-off either.its the huge plants and companies that donate big bucks to you so really if one donates to cbf they are killing the bay.to all of you that believe the cbf propaganda and donate to them you are donating to drive honest,hard working people out of business and you are helping to kill the bay at the same time.your donations are just helping to fill the pockets of polititians that run a business called the "Chesapeake bay foundation"

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