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.
The 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.
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.
Fisheries 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.
• 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.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo: Kristi Carroll/CBF. Charts: Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources)