Bay Dredging Shows Blue Crab Comeback

April 18, 2009|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

The number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has increased significantly over the past year, Maryland and Virginia officials announced Friday, saying that harvest limits designed to combat steep declines in the population appear to be working.

Results of the 2008-2009 winter dredge survey show that the number of female crabs in the bay doubled in the past year. Catch restrictions were aimed at preserving females so they could survive to produce the next generation.

Overall, the number of crabs in the bay increased from 280 million in 2007-2008 to more than 418 million in 2008-2009, officials estimate, a rapid and surprising rebound. The survey showed that the number of baby crabs held steady at 175 million.

While the news is promising, the ultimate results of the decision to reduce by a third the harvest of female crabs won't be known for at least a year, when biologists learn whether the female crabs have reproduced.

"It's a great first step in terms of rebuilding the crab population," said John Griffin, secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. But, he added, "It's just the first step, not the last. The real issue here is to build this population back up and sustain it over time."

Said Virginia Natural Resources Secretary L. Preston Bryant Jr.: "This news is good, but the work is not over." He said he doesn't want anyone to lose sight of the broader context that brought on the restrictions in the first place.

"The crab population is one-third of what it was 15 years ago. We didn't get into this situation overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight."

Officials in both states took action last year to limit the number of females caught. They shortened the season for catching female crabs and, in Virginia, authorities also ended the long-standing practice in that state of allowing watermen to catch hibernating females over the winter.

Slightly different restrictions are in place for the crab season that began in Maryland on April 1; officials said the survey results could lead to some tweaking of the new rules by the end of May.

To sustain the crab population, fisheries can safely harvest 46 percent of the total, said Lynn Fegley, a DNR biologist. Removing more than 53 percent can threaten the long-term survival of the population, she said.

In the past decade, the percentage of crabs harvested has been as high as in the 70 percent range. Last year, the figure was down to 50 percent.

In the long run, scientists say, watermen could benefit from the current catch restrictions. The larger the population of crabs in the bay, the argument goes, the larger the number of crabs that they will be permitted to catch.

Thomas Miller, a professor of fisheries science at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, said he knows that watermen suffered economically from the restrictions last season, and he is pleased they can see in the numbers that their sacrifices were meaningful.

"To have not seen any increase would have been a double blow," he said.

"There are very few success stories in fisheries management. This looks like it will be one of them," he said. "But we really won't know until next year."

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