Crab harvest ebbs this summer significance of drop is debated

August 07, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Blue crabs are proving elusive again this summer, puzzling scientists who follow them and renewing the debate over whether the mainstay of the Chesapeake Bay's seafood industry is wavering from overfishing.

Maryland watermen reported catching 9.2 million pounds from the April 1 start of crabbing season through June, the most recent month for which the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has figures.

That is about 20 percent below the same period last year. Though July's commercial harvest has not been tallied, watermen and seafood dealers say the catch has improved but remains below last year's record pace, which led to 55.8 million pounds of crabs for the season.

"The watermen are having it very scarce all over the bay," said J. C. Tolley, president of Meredith & Meredith Inc. in Toddville.

Mr. Tolley said his Dorchester County crab-picking business, which buys from about 30 crabbing boats, has only had enough supply to keep his employees working three days a week, instead of five.

"I think it's going to be a slower year than last year," predicted William Sieling, seafood marketing chief for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "Last year, we had crabs coming out of our ears."

Some blame last winter's freezing cold for killing off the crabs. Others blame the bay's rebounding rockfish population for eating many crabs before they get big enough to catch.

Still others note that most of this year's marketable crabs were spawned two years ago, when the harvest was off an alarming 40 percent baywide. That slump prompted Maryland and Virginia to begin tightening regulations on crabbing in a bid to conserve the fishery.

Regulators, scientists and participants in the crabbing industry differ on whether the drop so far this year is cause for worry.

"They're off, [though] not dramatically," said W. Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He added that the decline this year seems large simply because it follows a record harvest.

Va. scientists worried

"I'm concerned we're in a down cycle, though I don't have the data," said Anson H. "Tuck" Hines, a long-time crab researcher with the Smithsonian Institution's Environmental Research Center, on the banks of the Rhode River in Anne Arundel County. Crabs were scarce in the Rhode until last month, he said, but he cautioned that his surveys of the river do not necessarily reflect the rest of the bay.

In Virginia, scientists are worried about a slumping harvest and its implications.

Trawl-net surveys and other studies suggest that there may be a long-term downturn in the bay's normally up-and-down crab population, said Jacques van Montfrans, a crab researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He and others note that fishing pressure on crabs seems at an all-time high, and watermen now must work harder to duplicate the catch of prior seasons.

Some studies have suggested that one-third to one-half of crabs capable of reproducing are being caught by commercial fishermen, while recreational crabbers could be taking an additional 25 percent or more.

The decline in the harvest this year is "an additional warning sign, on top of the ones we've been seeing," said William Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Maryland watermen and fisheries managers, though, say that much of the slump this year may stem from unusual weather rather than a dwindling population. Mr. Jensen speculated that NTC cool spring weather slowed the crabs' growth, so there were fewer large enough to harvest early in the season.

Weather does influence crabs, scientists say, but it may have little to do with this year's drop-off. Research crews sampling the bay bottom with dredges this past winter detected a decline in the number of large crabs slumbering there, compared with the previous year's winter survey of nearly 1,000 locations around the bay.

Even scientists can misread the mysterious ways of crabs.

Brian Rothschild, a University of Maryland fisheries scientist who directs the 5-year-old survey with Virginia colleagues, acknowledges that he told some people this spring that the sampling indicated the early harvest was likely to be "normal." Further analysis, however, showed a roughly 20 percent decline in the number of crabs large enough to be harvested in the first few months of the season, Dr. Rothschild said.

"It's a research, rather than a prediction, program," he said.

Md. crabs undersized

"I don't think anybody can predict the crab," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. In the next breath, he said: "I think in the fall we're going to have some crabs."

Mr. Jensen predicted that despite the season's slow start, the crab harvest would finish above 40 million pounds for the year.

But DNR's trawl-net survey this summer indicates that most of the crabs in Maryland waters are 2 inches or less in width, said Jim Casey, state crab biologist.

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