Despite a decline due to last winter's brutally cold weather, the Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs remain abundant enough to warrant easing catch restrictions later this spring, state officials announced Tuesday.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said the annual winter survey for crabs found them at their second-highest level since 1997. He called the survey results good news for Marylanders who enjoy eating crabs and suggested the sky-high prices for steamed crabs seen in recent years may moderate as a result.
Bob Evans, president of the Anne Arundel County watermen's association, welcomed the prospect of eased catch limits and said he hoped they'd lead to lower prices at markets and restaurants.
"They're going to have to come down some, because in today's economy, people aren't going to buy them," he said. Even if prices watermen get for their catch drop a little as a result, he said, "If we can make it up in volume, we're going to have a good year."
Scientists estimate based on the survey that there are 460 million crabs in Maryland and Virginia waters, down from the bumper crop reported last year of more than 650 million. Despite the significant cold-water die-off, they are still well above the threshold scientists had set for maintaining a healthy population.
Crabs are vulnerable to extreme cold, according to Tom O'Connell, state fisheries director. Water temperatures plummeted in December to their coldest since 1996 and stayed depressed into February. Biologists think that as many as 31 percent of the bay's adult crabs died as a result — nearly three times the die-off the previous winter. The number of juvenile crabs also declined.
O'Malley said that "while our population isn't at the level it was last year, the numbers do represent significant progress compared to where we were headed a few years ago."
The survey found that 254 million adult crabs survived the winter, making it the third year in a row the numbers exceeded the 200 million threshold scientists had set for rebuilding the stock. And the overall population of adults and juveniles was nearly double the record-low tally of 249 million in 2007.
Maryland and Virginia clamped down on crab harvest in 2008 after scientists warned that the population had declined to dangerously low levels. The restrictions, especially an early fall cutoff of crabbing, cost watermen thousands of dollars in income and drew bitter complaints from them. Maryland got $15 million in federal disaster relief funds to help ease the seafood industry's lost income, and watermen have been hired to help rebuild oyster reefs and do other work around the bay.
Meanwhile, the catch limits appeared to have worked in easing harvest pressure, said Lynn Fegley, assistant fisheries director. And as the population has rebounded, so has the commercial harvest. Officials estimate that more than 89 million pounds of crabs were caught last year, the highest level since 1993.
Now, with the survey showing three years of solid recovery, state fisheries officials said they are considering easing some catch restrictions. Watermen may be allowed to catch up to 20 percent more female crabs in the fall, or a two-week harvest ban in June may be lifted in return for tighter caps on female catch in autumn. The Department of Natural Resources will decide on any adjustments in late May after hearing from watermen, seafood industry representatives and the public, O'Connell said.
Evans said watermen are eager to see some relaxation of the catch restrictions.
"It is a real struggle for us to make a living with all these regulations," he said. While he supports limits on catching females since they produce future generations of crabs, Evans said he believed some other harvest restrictions are unneeded.
Peyton Robertson, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office, said biologists are making a fresh assessment of the bay's crab population and may recommend separate catch limits for male and female crabs.
But in the meantime, Bill Goldsborough, senior fishery scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, warned it was too early to let up. But for the catch limits maintained by the states, he said in a statement, the crab population would still be depressed. And while this survey shows the crab population is "relatively healthy," he noted that reproduction declined last year and predicted that the catch this year may be lower than last year's.
Even so, Tony Piera, co-owner of Mike's Crab House near Annapolis, where O'Malley staged the announcement, said he couldn't help but think any easing of catch restrictions this year would help make steamed crabs more affordable.
"I think they'll come down," Piera said of his crab prices, which range from $45 a dozen for mediums to $65 for large and $85 for jumbos.