Maryland's harvest of blue crabs last month was the worst on record for July, catching state officials off guard and causing them to wonder whether the Chesapeake Bay's most important commercial species is headed for deeper trouble.
The state's watermen caught slightly more than half as many blue crabs last month as normal -- about 4.6 million pounds, a steep drop from the July 1997 harvest of 9 million pounds, according to new information collected by the state Department of Natural Resources. The news came as no surprise to watermen, who say August has been almost as bad.
"It's pathetic. We haven't had any crabs in July and August," said Russell Dize, 57, a Tilghman Island crab buyer. "It's been the worst season I've seen in 35 years."
The decline could be a fluke, a brief downward blip in the most notoriously unpredictable of Chesapeake Bay fisheries. But it comes hard on the heels of other worrisome findings.
Last winter, a state winter survey found below-average numbers of young crabs. In May, a report from blue crab experts warned that the fishery is "fully exploited," with only a narrow margin of safety to protect against overfishing.
And a summer survey of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay waters, completed last month, found below-average numbers of crabs of all ages, including only one-seventh the average amount of the juvenile crabs -- the youngsters watermen rely open to provide next year's catch.
DNR Secretary John R. Griffin said yesterday that the low harvest, during a month that normally falls at the peak of the
crab season, is "basis for increased scrutiny but no basis for alarm."
"There's growing evidence and growing concern that we're hitting our heads on the ceiling" by catching as many crabs as the bay can produce, Griffin said.
While it's too soon to consider new harvest restrictions, Griffin said, that topic may come up this fall. Crab experts from Maryland and Virginia will meet early next month to compare the two states' harvests and survey results and try to figure out whether the lower catch signals the start of a trend. Virginia's catch data from last month are not available yet, officials there say.
In Maryland, Pete Jensen, DNR's deputy director for fisheries, said: "We frankly did not expect a drop of this magnitude. Nothing readily explains it, and we're going to be taking a good close look at all the information we have to make sure there isn't something going on that we've missed."
Traditionally, July begins the peak summer season of the blue crab catch -- the time when the cycle of migrations brings crabs of all ages to the Chesapeake to fatten on the bay's seafood banquet. In that month, watermen usually catch about one-fifth the total for the April-to-November season. In the 1990s, Maryland watermen have harvested an average of 8.9 million pounds in July.
So far, 1998 is spared from being the worst harvest of the 1990s by unusually big catches in April and May. The year-to-date total of 14 million pounds is the second-worst on record since 1991, well below the end-of-July average of 17 million pounds.
Overall harvest levels have stayed fairly stable throughout the 1990s, averaging about 42 million pounds a year by the time the season ends in Chesapeake waters Nov. 30. Scientists say they can't predict how 1998 will turn out, but watermen aren't optimistic.
"Crabs have been scarce all summer, and the price has stayed up -- that's the only reason we're making a decent day's living," said Charles County crabber Joe Stine. "We're getting $65 a bushel right now, compared to no more than $50 last summer. We're just making a modest amount of money."
If fisheries managers recommend new catch restrictions in the fall, near the end of the season, it may make more sense to have them take effect in April or perhaps June 1999, Griffin said.
In 1995, the Glendening administration earned watermen's wrath imposing late-season restrictions on crabbers, in response to some signs that the population of breeding females was in trouble. Critics accused the administration of overreacting to scant evidence. But Griffin said the signs now suggest the administration was right.
"Three years later, there's growing concern," Griffin said. "Watermen are hurting and income is down. Right now we're at the height of the season and in Maryland, at least, it doesn't look like it's going to be a good one."
Pub Date: 8/22/98