Bay's juvenile blue crabs reach their highest levels since 1997

Survey makes officials optimistic about harvest

April 02, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Juvenile blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay have reached their highest levels since 1997, according to a new survey, and state officials foresee a potentially bountiful crab season.

The 2004-2005 winter dredge survey, conducted by researchers with Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, sampled crabs at 1,500 sites in the bay from December through March.

During those months, crabs burrow in mud, making it easy for scientists to count them and estimate their numbers baywide.

Researchers found that the number of juvenile crabs was the highest since 1997 and the sixth-highest since they began conducting surveys 16 years ago.

The number of mature female crabs also increased slightly, after an upward trend in females since the historical lows of 2001 and 2002.

"We've have a very good influx of baby crabs," said DNR blue crab manager Lynn Fegley.

It takes crabs about nine months to mature, so the juvenile crabs will be ready for harvest around August.

Fegley cautioned that the survey results aren't final and that the counts can't predict what kind of season watermen will have.

Maryland's crab harvests hit a low of about 20 million pounds in 2000, and have rebounded since then to 30 million pounds last year.

But the harvest was nearly twice that a decade ago, so the progress is relative.

"We'll take the short-term windfall, but we're not really quite ready to celebrate and say the crabs are out of the woods," said Stephanie Reynolds, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Still, the increase found by the survey is welcome news, said Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns.

"We kind of expected it. We knew it was going to be better," said Simns, whose members have been spotting increased numbers of juvenile crabs all winter.

The optimistic survey findings come on the heels of a labor shortage for crab processors, who don't have enough workers to pick the meat.

Unless the seafood packers can solve their labor problem, Simns said, they could miss out on the bounty when those juvenile crabs grow up in the fall.

"Crab-picking houses could do really well if they could get some pickers," he said.

The Capital News Service contributed to this article.

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