ABOARD THE MYDRA ANN — — Joe Williams kneels on the deck and begins gingerly picking through Patuxent River muck, looking for signs of life. A wiggling here, a scuttling there brings a slight smile to his face.
The census of blue crabs hibernating in the muddy bottom of the Chesapeake Bay will help state fisheries scientists determine what kind of recreational and commercial crabbing season Maryland is likely to have.
If it's like last year, when the number of blue crabs skyrocketed 60 percent to their highest level since 1997, summer will seem a little sweeter. If the population stagnates or plummets, the Land of Pleasant Living may feel less hospitable.
The number to beat is 658 million.
Although the results of the winter dredge survey won't be tallied and released until next month, "things look pretty good," says Shellie Bronis, like Williams a biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.
The dredging survey, conducted by Maryland and Virginia each year since 1990, is the only bay-wide stock inventory.
"This is the most coveted, the most accurate measurement estimate we use for the crab population," said DNR biologist Chris Walstrum.
The operation is labor intensive but fairly simple. From December to March, boats randomly sample 1,500 locations, from Pooles Island near the mouth of the Gunpowder River south to where the bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Crabs are lifted from the mud in metal baskets lined with nylon mesh and dumped on the deck. Survey crews sort crabs, measuring and weighing each one and noting the sex.
Keeping the crab numbers healthy is a balancing act.
Fisheries managers say the crab population is sustainable if no more than 46 percent of the total is harvested annually. Removing more than 53 percent can threaten the long-term survival of the population.
But during the past decade, the percentage of crabs harvested pushed way beyond that point. As a result, in 2000 and 2001 surveys showed the crab population was at historic low levels and near collapse.
Limits placed on watermen's work week failed to slow the trend and the 2007 commercial harvest dipped to a record low. The next year, the U.S. Commerce Department declared the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab fishery a federal disaster. Maryland and Virginia agreed to reduce the harvest of female crabs by one-third to restore a healthy spawning stock.
Raw harvest reports from watermen for last year are still being tabulated and analyzed, but DNR officials expect a significant increase.
In addition to the overall population, the state will be carefully watching Crustacean Nation for two numbers: the number of juveniles, which doubled last year to 343 million, and the number of crabs of spawning age, which was 315 million in 2010, the highest since 1993.
The season will begin April 1 for both commercial and recreational crabbers. Good crab numbers appear to prime the pump on the recreational side. Last year, DNR sold 53,477 licenses, an increase of nearly 10 percent and the highest number in a decade. Tackle shop owners say they sold more gear and bait.
The numbers are "confirmation of anecdotal reports last year that more people were going crabbing," said Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell. "With a 60 percent increase in crab abundance, recreational crabbers were more successful catching crabs. It didn't take long for this information to spread through the community … Given the cultural importance of crabbing in Maryland, it was great to see this response."