Report shows blue crab progress

Population stabilized but at low number

November 14, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population has apparently stabilized but at such a historically low number that Maryland and Virginia must keep up efforts to limit the annual harvest, according to a study scheduled to be delivered today.

The report, from some of the bay's leading crab scientists, warns that "our work to restore the blue crab is far from over" and that pressures to harvest more crabs "risk driving the stock down further, to dangerously low levels."

"There is still ongoing reason to be concerned," said Thomas J. Miller, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and member of the study group "We've got to maintain what I think have been some prudent measures."

The Blue Crab Technical Work Group will present its report today to the Chesapeake Bay Commission in Solomons. The commission, which comprises lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, advises those legislatures on bay issues.

"In terms of the baywide harvest, everyone needs to understand that we are below the long-term average and that the Chesapeake's blue crab population hovers near historic lows," said Ann P. Swanson, the commission's executive director and chairwoman of the work group.

"It's like the glass is half-empty and half-full. On the half-full side, it appears that the management actions of the past few years may have stemmed the decline. The half-empty side is that it has stabilized at a historic low."

This year, the blue crab harvest appears to be down from recent years, the report states. Maryland crabbers have typically caught 13 million to 15 million pounds - sometimes as much as 22 million pounds - by the end of August, but preliminary figures show a harvest of less than 11 million pounds through that period this year.

The report is the first since Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission agreed in 2001 to try to resuscitate the crab population, largely by reducing the annual harvest by 15 percent.

Scientists say they hope to double the blue crab spawning stock, but all acknowledge that the bay's population is far from that level. "I think the jury is still a little out on whether we have hit the bottom," Miller said.

The two states and the fisheries commission have enacted a variety of measures to reduce the catch, including restrictions on the crabbers' workday, the size of crabs they may keep and the areas in which they fish.

This winter's dredge survey by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will be crucial in determining whether additional restrictions should be considered, said Phil W. Jones, the agency's chief of fisheries resource management.

The commission is not expected to take act on the report today, but members are likely to return to their legislatures with the clear idea that now is not the time to loosen restrictions, said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat.

"I think you've got to give it more than one season to say whether it's working or if it isn't," Wood said.

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