After two years of heavy restrictions on crabbing throughout the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland officials are considering eliminating one restriction watermen say is particularly harmful to their livelihoods.
The state may lift the ban on harvesting female crabs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4 this year, said Brenda Davis, blue crab program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The decision will be made by the department's secretary and may come within the next few weeks.
Fisheries scientists have determined that because of increased numbers of crabs in the bay this year, the department may be able to make small adjustments to the 2010 harvest regulations "while still maintaining safe harvest levels," said Darlene Pisani, director of communications for DNR.
It's unlikely any other restrictions on crabbing will be lifted anytime soon, Davis and other state officials said.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the change is one he and other watermen have been seeking. They are not asking the state to ease any other crabbing restrictions — which include limits on the number of crabs watermen can catch each day, where they can harvest and what time of day they can fish.
Female crabs are abundant during late September and early October, and crabbers in the lower bay depend on female crabs to make a living, he said.
"That would be a big help to our people," Simns said. "Once you close up for two weeks, the market goes and finds crabs somewhere else. We want to hang on to our markets."
Watermen would still be limited on how many female crabs can be caught each day, and they would not be able to harvest any female crabs after Nov. 10.
Maryland and Virginia partnered in 2008 to impose restrictions aimed at cutting the harvest of female blue crabs by a third. The idea was that more female crabs would produce more baby crabs, jump-starting the bay's population of the iconic crustacean.
The restrictions were imposed after a decade in which the crab population in the bay stayed relatively low, without the highs of a few years earlier. From 1998 to 2008, the population averaged 309 million, according to data provided by DNR.
After the restrictions were imposed in 2008, the crab population rebounded almost immediately. The annual winter dredge survey in January 2009 revealed a sharp increase in the population of Chesapeake blue crabs, followed by another big increase in the 2010 dredge survey. The total number of crabs in the bay this winter was estimated at 658 million — its highest level since 1997 — according to the 2010 dredge survey.
Eric Johnson, a fisheries ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said it's premature to say whether the population surge will last. He thinks the crabs that weren't caught during that period would have likely been caught later anyway.
"I think in the grand scheme of things that particular regulation is not one of the major [factors] that led to the recovery," Johnson said.
Tom Miller, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Chesapeake Biological Lab, said many factors affect the crab population each year, including weather and currents.
Female crabs spawn near the mouth of the bay, and the larvae are swept out to sea. The baby crabs must make their way back into the bay, where they often use underwater grasses for shelter. Weather conditions and currents at key times can have a devastating effect in a particular year, Miller said, so it is crucial that there are enough adults left to rebuild the population the following year.