Summer hopes for crabs

Forecasters: Biologists seeking to gauge the harvest dredge the bay in the winter.

February 10, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

ABOARD THE LONI CAROL II -- If you want to predict next summer's crab harvest, you have to go out in the middle of winter, when the crustaceans are hunkered in the mud, and dredge.

So it was that on a sleety day in early February Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists dropped a Virginia crab dredge off the stern of a 47-foot dead rise workboat run by Tangier Island watermen in the Patuxent River and sifted through what comes out of the water.

On their first tow, among the oyster shells, they find a crab weighing barely a half-gram and an empty soft drink can with a toadfish inside. The next tow is a little better. They find two males-- one of them large enough to be a keeper, says biologist Chris Walstrum, who is doing the measuring.

This crew has been at it since mid-December, sampling at some 800 sites chosen at random by computer from Poole's Island in the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay to Crisfield near the Virginia line. Together, Maryland and Virginia sample 1,500 bay sites each winter.

The cold-weather surveys, begun in 1988, have provided the information to allow agencies in the two states to predict the summer crab harvest "within reason," says Phil Jones, head of Maryland's crab survey.

"We've been able to predict average, above average, below average, but we'd like to be more accurate than that," he says. "We want to be able to say 20 million, 30 million pounds or whatever [in the Maryland portion of the bay]. We'll get to the point that we can compare over time what we found and how many crabs were caught."

With a few weeks to go before this survey is over, it looks as if next summer's crab season will be about the same as last summer's, in which Maryland's commercial crabbers hauled in 31.9 million pounds between April 1 and Nov. 30.

That's better than the record low of 26.2 million pounds in 1998, but below the long-term average of 38 million pounds a year.

The surveys come amid warnings that Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population is dangerously close to collapse and efforts of officials in both states to reverse the decline:

A University of Maryland study released in September 1998 concluded that blue crabs have been overharvested since the 1980s and that harvests may have to be cut by at least 10 percent if the industry is to survive.

A few months later, Maryland and Virginia officials agreed to a two-year, $300,000 study to overhaul the way the fishery is managed.

In April, Virginia's top fisheries manager endorsed a plan to create a network of blue crab sanctuaries throughout the bay.

A committee of the Bi-State Blue Crab commission reported in May that the baywide stock of blue crabs has been fully exploited and that the numbers of crabs able to reproduce had fallen below the average for the past 30 years.

The sanctuary proposal is among the ones the commission studied at a workshop last week on Solomons Island.

Interest in sanctuaries

Ann Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission said there was "a lot of interest" in sanctuaries as well as in catch and equipment limits that could be bought and sold much like development rights.

In the dead rise -- a workboat with a hull that starts in a V-shape and flattens toward the stern -- the DNR crew dredges only a few miles from Solomons Island, where the blue crab commission met.

Tracy Moore, one of the Tangier watermen, wipes the fog off the windshield as he steers for the next site put out by the state's computer weeks ago: 38 degrees, 24 minutes, 36 seconds north and 76 degrees, 31 minutes, 57 seconds west, about a mile north of St. Leonard's Creek in 9 feet of water.

Moore leaves the wheel in the cabin for one amidships, where he can control the boat and the Virginia dredge, a rectangular iron frame 6 feet across with a net that drags behind it.

With hardly a word exchanged, biologist Glenn Davis and James Eskridge, another Tangier man, drop the dredge off the stern, and Moore watches the chain clanking and clattering as it plays out over a pulley behind the boat. The chain stops with a slight jolt as the dredge hits bottom and the tow begins.

A minute later, Walstrum sounds a horn to say the dredge has been out long enough, and Moore starts the winch to pull the dredge back in.

Repeating process

Walstrum records the point at which the dredge started, where it stopped, the water temperature and salinity and begins looking for crabs. There aren't any.

The crew repeats this operation eight times over five hours from south of the Thomas Johnson Bridge to the bridge at Benedict, downstream from Potomac Electric Co.'s Chalk Point power plant.

They come up with five crabs, a juvenile shad and flounder and masses of shells.

Jones says that isn't so bad when you consider the area that's been covered. To him, the harvest looks about like last year's.

And if the strong finish of last season is any indication, this coming season should start strong, he says.

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