This summer's harvest of crabs not expected to improve, DNR says

But watermen's catches indicate a better start

April 19, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

This summer's crab harvest won't be any better than last year's, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. But it won't be any worse.

However, this season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 30, has started more smoothly, according to Eric Schwaab, DNR fisheries manager.

Commercial crabbers caught few crabs in April and May last year, but the harvest picked up later and finished strong.

This year, "We're hearing from commercial watermen that they're catching a fair number of crabs early on," Schwaab. "That indicates that maybe we're off to a better start than last year."

Larry Simms, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said few of his members have their pots out yet, but we're "seeing lots of little crabs out there."

"As far as what we're seeing, it looks better than it did this time last year," he said.

Commercial crabbers hauled in about 50 million pounds of the crustaceans bay-wide last season, 31.9 million pounds from Maryland waters. Indications from Maryland and Virginia winter dredge surveys, released this week, show that harvests will be about the same this year, said Schwaab.

While last year's Maryland catch was an improvement over the 26.2 million pounds harvested during the 1998 season, the lowest on record, it remains below the eight-year average of 38 million pounds from Maryland waters.

Crab harvest figures are being watched closely as a growing number of Chesapeake Bay scientists fear that the most valuable commercial fishery in the bay is teetering on the edge of a crash.

A team of University of Maryland scientists reported in 1998 that blue crabs had been overfished for most of the previous two decades and that the harvest would have to be cut sharply if the industry were to survive.

Rom Lipsius, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is putting the finishing touches on a plan for a network of deep water crab sanctuaries in the Virginia portion of the bay. He is to present the plan to the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Commission this month.

The commission, meanwhile, is in the midst of a two-year $300,000 study to learn more about crab stocks in the bay and potentially set annual harvest levels.

A committee of the commission warned a year ago that the "bay wide stock of blue crabs is fully exploited and that the spawning stock is below the average for the last 30 years."

The Maryland survey, which has been a relatively accurate predictor of the crab harvest for eight years, focused on how many crabs were in 1,000 square meters.

That number has been declining steadily, from 90 prior to 1993 to 50 in 1994-1995 and 40 in the past two years.

"None of us are suggesting the crab stock is crashing," said Schwaab. "But it's clear we're in a relatively low phase, and whether that will rebound, we don't know."

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