When cold weather arrives, blue crabs up and down the Chesapeake Bay stop their scurrying. The summertime rush of food-hunting and mate-finding is over, and the crustaceans will spend the winter months buried in sand and sediment. It is at this moment that researchers in Maryland and Virginia must strike: to count the crabs while they are still.
Known as the winter dredge survey, this annual count of the Bay’s blue crab population is a critical part of blue crab management. Without an accurate estimate of blue crab abundance, fisheries managers cannot set harvest limits for the season ahead.
“The winter dredge survey is the most vital tool that we have in crab management,” said Chris Walstrum, a natural resources biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “This is the best chance we have to assess the [blue crab] population, because the crabs are stationary.”
Walstrum and his team are responsible for counting crabs in Maryland waters; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conducts the winter dredge survey in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Between the two agencies, a total of 1,500 Bay sites are visited over the course of three and a half months before the numbers are crunched and fisheries managers can make recommendations on how blue crab harvests should or shouldn’t change.
On a warmer-than-normal January morning, Walstrum is aboard a boat in Broad Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The DNR vessel has been captained for more than a decade by Roger Morris, a fifth-generation waterman who used to dredge for crabs commercially and whose skills are invaluable to the success of the survey.
“Whether people like it or not, the winter dredge survey is the whole basis for our [blue crab harvest] limits,” Morris said. “That’s why I try to do the best I can do at it. It takes experience. You just can’t walk on a crab dredge boat and expect to catch crabs.”
At each survey site—six of them in this particular waterway—Morris will line up his boat and drop its so-called Virginia crab dredge into the water. The metal dredge is towed along the bottom for one minute before it is hoisted back on board, where the newly caught contents of its mesh liner are dumped out and sorted through. In each catch, there are brown leaves, oyster shells, little fish and, more often than not, a collection of blue crabs.
Each crab is weighed, measured and sexed before it is tossed back into the water. This provides an accurate picture of the blue crab population, as researchers track the number of young crabs that will form the backbone of the fishery next fall and the number of females that will produce the next generation of blue crab stock.
“The winter dredge survey provides us with a cornerstone piece of data from which to operate our [blue crab] management,” said Brenda Davis, chief of the DNR Blue Crab Program.
“It’s a long-running survey, and it’s been consistently accurate,” Davis said. “It gives us a good, static picture of the number of crabs in the Bay.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, but a substantial boost in the number of spawning-age females has offered officials a piece of good news in spite of this disappointing decline.
According to the results of the annual winter dredge survey, which measures the blue crab population in Maryland and Virginia, the number of spawning-age females in the Bay has risen 52 percent. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this number as an indicator of Bay health, and an increase is a sign that management methods to conserve adult female crabs are working. But an overall decline in the Bay’s blue crabs—from 765 million in 2012 to 300 million in 2013—could lead to the tightening of commercial harvest restrictions.
Image courtesy Benjamin Wilson/Flickr
Scientists have attributed the decline in blue crabs not to overfishing, but to high mortality rates among juveniles. While last year’s winter dredge survey measured an unprecedented number of juvenile crabs in the Bay, last summer and fall saw an alarming loss of blue crab habitat and a large influx of red drum, which often feed on young crabs. Young blue crabs are also known to feed on each other when population densities are high.
“It is important to keep these results in perspective,” said Jack Travelstead, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), in a news release. “Five years ago this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case: overfishing is no longer occurring, a good fisheries management framework is in place, the stock is healthy and spawning-age females are doing well. If not for the disappointingly small reproductive year class we would have much to celebrate.”
In an effort to make up for this shift in blue crab abundance, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) are pursuing strategies to establish a 10 percent cut in the commercial harvest of female blue crabs. Both Maryland and the PRFC will consider adjusting or enacting daily bushel limits, which have been put in place in Virginia. Maryland and Virginia will also consider shortening their crab seasons, and it seems likely that Virginia’s winter dredge fishery will remain closed.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) will draft their 2013 Blue Crab Advisory Report over the next few weeks.
Read more about the 2013 winter dredge survey results.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to express gratitude for the good in life. We have much to be thankful for—and so does the Chesapeake Bay! Here is a look at six moments from the past year that signaled good news for the watershed.
6. A sustainable blue crab population. The most recent report on the Bay’s blue crab stock reveals a population that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished. Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. The survey also measured more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades. A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked and recreational crabbers (and crab-eaters!) happy.
Image courtesy Erickson Smith/Flickr
5. Additional American eels. American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the removal of a large dam that once blocked eels from moving upstream. Other anadromous swimmers like shad, herring and striped bass—which must migrate from the ocean into rivers to spawn—are also using this reopened habitat. Our rivers are thankful to see the return of these important residents.
4. A huge boost in oyster restoration. This year, restoration partners in Maryland put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen. While some of the oyster larvae went into the Upper Bay, most went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. While habitat loss, disease and historic overfishing have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, planting “spat on shell” onto harvest-safe sanctuaries is one way to bring the water-filtering bivalves back.
3. A lot of living shorelines. When shorelines wash away, fish, crabs and other wildlife lose valuable habitat, and coastal landowners lose their lawns. To curb shoreline erosion, coastal property owners are turning toward living shorelines, which replace hardened bulkhead and riprap with grasses and trees. This summer, the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Living Shorelines program awarded $800,000 to 16 homeowner associations, non-profit organizations and towns to install more than 6,800 feet of living shoreline and wetland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
2. Greater green infrastructure. With the implementation of green infrastructure, cities can use the natural environment to better manage stormwater runoff. Green roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement, for instance, can absorb stormwater runoff before it flows into local rivers and streams. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded $4 million to local governments for green infrastructure projects. But the environment is not the only one who will be thankful; green infrastructure can revitalize communities and produce cost benefits that can exceed those of traditional stormwater management methods. We are grateful that more towns will be greener in both color and concept!
1. Long-term improvements in Bay health. A number of Bay monitoring sites have shown long-term improvements in nutrient and sediment levels. According to an August report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985, two-thirds have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts—from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to cuts in fertilizer use on farms and suburban lawns—are working.
A new report on the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population reveals a blue crab stock that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished.
A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked, and recreational crabbers—and crab-eaters—happy.
The report, developed by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) and released Friday by the Chesapeake Bay Program's Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, highlights the health of a blue crab population with results showing a sustainable number of adult females and more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades.
According to the report, overfishing of blue crabs is not occurring in the Bay. Indeed, 2011 represents the fourth consecutive year that harvest levels have been at or below target level. This is likely due to more stringent harvesting regulations that work to preserve the female blue crab population. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, for instance, has placed limits on the commercial harvest of female blue crabs and banned the recreational harvest of females altogether. Virginia regulators have banned the winter dredging of blue crabs for the past four years, notable because mature female crabs often overwinter in the saltier, warmer waters of the lower Bay.
Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. While this is below CBSAC’s target of 215 million adult female crabs, it is still above the committee’s overfished threshold.
The winter dredge survey also counted 587 million juvenile crabs in the Bay, an almost 300 percent increase from last year’s count and the largest number of juveniles recorded in the survey’s 23-year history. Because of the blue crab’s rapid growth rate and short life span—few blue crabs live longer than three years—these juveniles should be mature enough to enter the blue crab fishery this year, bolstering the fall harvest.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends better accounting for both commercial and recreational catches and taking a precautionary approach to harvesting young crabs this fall in hopes of generating a healthy harvest next spring.
Learn more about the 2012 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population increased 66 percent in 2012 to its highest level since 1993, according to the annual blue crab winter dredge survey conducted by Maryland and Virginia.
The enormous increase was fueled by a “baby boom” – an almost tripling of the juvenile crab population, from 207 million last year to 587 million. This figure smashed the old record of 512 million juvenile crabs set in 1993.
Overall, the Bay’s crab population has risen to 764 million, more than triple the record low of 249 million set in 2007. That deep decline set in motion four years of concentrated efforts to rebuild the stock.
“Just a few short years ago, the future did not look bright for our blue crab population,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Our female crabs were being overfished, and our fishery was at risk of complete collapse. We teamed up with our neighbors in Virginia and at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to make the tough choices, guided by science, to reverse that population decline.”
Bay-wide, the crab harvest has increased substantially since 2008, when 43 million pounds were caught. In 2011, an estimated 67.3 million pounds of crabs were harvested from the Bay.
Not all news from the survey was bright: the number of spawning-age females dropped by roughly 50 percent to 97 million. However, this figure is still above the health threshold. Maryland and Virginia will work together to produce a management strategy to avert another stock decline for this segment of the crab population.
Visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website for more information about the winter dredge survey and the 2012 blue crab figures.
For most of us, a leap year simply means adding an extra day to the schedule in February. But in other cultures, leap years are symbolic. In the British Isles, folk tradition says that women must propose marriage in leap years, whereas in Greece, it’s bad luck for couples to get married during leap years.
While Chesapeake Bay region folklore does not mention February 29, we decided to take this opportunity to mention a few Bay “oddities”: natural occurrences that only come along every so often – just like leap years.
(Image courtesy Alpaca Farm Girl)
Like other Chesapeake Bay species, blue crabs need oxygen to survive. But when oxygen levels are too low, blue crabs come out of the water and onto land, an event known as a crab jubilee.
Despite the term “jubilee,” the event is not a celebration. Crab jubilees occur only when water quality in the Chesapeake Bay is extremely poor. Typically, a combination of hot weather, offshore winds and algae blooms fueled by nutrient runoff quickly deplete oxygen levels in the water, sending crabs and other critters running toward the shore for air.
In Mobile Bay, Alabama, a similar event known simply as the jubilee occurs regularly and has become a community celebration, renowned for an opportunity to easily catch seafood.
(Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation)
Thirty-five million years ago, a bolide (an asteroid-like object) crashed into what is now the lower tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, creating a 55-mile-wide crater that’s the largest known in the United States. It’s called an impact crater because the deep depression impacted the lay of the land: influencing the course of the region’s rivers and determining the eventual location of the Chesapeake Bay. As sea level rose and fell over the next few million years, the Chesapeake Bay fluctuated between dry land and a shallow coastal sea.
(Image courtesy psyberartist/Flickr)
In 1994, the first Florida manatee ever was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay. This mammal, which can stay underwater for as long as 12 minutes, typically does not travel into waters below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. But this particular manatee, appropriately named Chessie, seems to occasionally prefer the cold. Chessie, which biologists recognize by distinct markings on his body, visited the Bay again in 2001 and 2011. Chessie even swam all the way to New England, the northernmost known point to ever receive a manatee visit.
Manatees are endangered because of habitat loss and harmful human activities, making a Chessie sighting all the more rare. Also, while most wild manatees live for 8 to 11 years, Chessie is at least 20 years old!
(Image courtesy Ken-ichi/Flickr)
North Atlantic humpback whales feed in polar waters in the summer and mate in warm waters in the winter. But each winter, a handful of humpback whales mate in the Chesapeake Bay instead of the tropics. This year, 30 whales were counted off the coast of Virginia Beach – much higher than the average of five or six. An unusually mild winter attracted the whales to these Chesapeake waters.
Luckily, humpback whales are friendly and curious; they’re known to surface beside boats and put on a show for lucky whale watchers. Care for something even more rare? If you’re daring enough to stick your head in the water, you may be able to hear a mating song. Biologists can determine where a whale comes from by listening to its song. For example, Hawaiian humpback whales sing a different song than those from Virginia.
Virginia will close its winter blue crab dredge fishery season for the fourth year in a row in a continued effort to rebuild the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 9-0 to close the fishery at a meeting on Sept. 27. According to the commission, although great progress has been made to restore blue crabs, more work remains to bring the population back to healthy, sustainable levels.
Visit the commission’s website to learn more about the blue crab fishery and the closure.
A new scientific assessment of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population shows that significantly more work needs to be done to rebuild the stock to sustainable levels.
The assessment, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reveals that the blue crab stock was more depleted than originally thought and therefore will take longer to rebuild.
However, the stock has increased substantially in response to three years of management actions by Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, according to the assessment.
“The crab stock is improving throughout the Bay. Collectively, we have made a lot of progress over the past three years. But this new science indicates we still have a way to go to achieve our goal of having a biologically stable stock with a robust harvest,” said Jack Travelstead, Virginia’s Fisheries Chief.
The assessment sets a new healthy abundance level of 215 million female crabs, with overfishing occurring if 34 percent of the female crabs are harvested in a year.
Until now, fishery managers used an interim target of 200 million total adult crabs as the threshold of a healthy stock. Overfishing was considered to be occurring if 53 percent of adult crabs were harvested in a year. Regulations were established to meet these benchmarks, which were based on 2005 data.
For perspective, fishery managers have only come close to achieving the new assessment’s female abundance level three times during the past 22 years: in 2010, 1993 and 1991.
The new, more stringent assessment of the crab stock’s health will allow fishery managers to set more precise female harvest limits to fully rebuild the stock.
“This is a sea-change in how we will manage the fishery," Travelstead said, adding that Virginia is not likely to relax blue crab harvest restrictions in the near future.
“The new safe female abundance level and overfishing threshold will dictate how the fishery is managed in the years to come,” said Tom O’Connell, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee will meet in September to consider the new assessment, examine data and provide management recommendations to Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
The blue crab stock assessment took three years to complete and represents the best available science on the stock’s lifespan, gender, size distributions and reproductive capabilities.
Read and download the full blue crab stock assessment from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s website.
Waterman hauled up more than 10,000 derelict “ghost pots,” lost fishing nets and other assorted metal from the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers this winter as part of Virginia’s Marine Debris Removal Program.
In total, more than 28,000 ghost pots – abandoned crab pots that litter the Bay’s bottom – have been removed over the past three years. Watermen removed more marine debris this year than in either of the last two years.
Ghost pots inadvertently trap and kill crabs, fish and other wildlife. Scientists have determined that each functional ghost pot can capture about 50 crabs a year. Ongoing research suggests 20 percent of all the crab pots set in a year are lost, primarily due to storms or boat propellers.
This year, a total of 9,970 ghost pots were recovered. In addition, 52 lost nets and 532 other pieces of junk were hauled up, including a jon boat, a portable generator frame and a large metal crate used to transport hunting dogs.
The recovered crab pots were found to have captured more than 11,000 animals, including thousands of crabs, as well as turtles, fish, eels and whelks. More than 27,000 animals, many already dead, have been found in ghost pots retrieved since 2008.
The removal program, funded by NOAA through the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and administered by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), pays out-of-work watermen to use side-imaging sonar units to detect and retrieve ghost pots and other marine debris. It is the first and largest program of its kind in the United States.
For more information about the Marine Debris Removal Program, visit VIMS' website.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population is at its second-highest level since 1997, according to results from the 2011 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey. At 460 million crabs, the blue crab population is nearly double the record low of 249 million in 2007.
Additionally, the survey shows that there are 254 million adult crabs in the Bay, a figure that is above the 200 million population target for the third year in a row. This marks the first time since the early 1990s that there have been three consecutive years where the adult population was above the target.
These figures indicate that emergency crab management measures put into place in 2008 are helping the Bay’s blue crabs recover, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
“We continue to realize the benefits of the very tough decisions we made three years ago – decisions that are bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“The stock’s improved status from just a few short years ago is neither a random event nor a reflection of improved environmental conditions,” said Dr. Rom Lipcius, who directs the Virginia component of the dredge survey for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The unusually high crab abundance allowed watermen to harvest more than 89 million pounds of crabs, the largest amount since 1993. In addition, recreational crabbing license sales increased by 8 percent in 2010. However, the combined commercial and recreational blue crab harvest did not exceed the target of 46 percent. This shows that a healthy crab industry can coexist with stronger regulations, according to VMRC.
Despite these positive figures, overall crab abundance declined due to this past winter’s deep freeze that killed as many as 31 percent of Maryland’s adult crabs, compared to about 11 percent in 2010. Crab reproduction – which is heavily influenced by environmental conditions – was also lower in 2011.
“It was a harsh winter and crab mortality was higher than normal. In fact, it was the worst we’ve seen since 1996,” said VMRC Commissioner Steven G. Bowman. “Thankfully, we acted when we did in 2008 to begin rebuilding the crab population, or the crab census results we see today would be grim indeed.”
“The evidence indicates we’ve succeeded in rebuilding the stock to a degree that it can withstand a perfect storm of rapid temperature drop as crabs move into their overwintering grounds in the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay, followed by a prolonged bout of cold weather,” said VMRC Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead.
Abundance estimates for young of the year, mature female and adult male crabs are developed separately. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2011 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.
The annual Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey is the primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population. Since 1990, Maryland DNR and VIMS have sampled for blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake from December to March. By sampling during winter – when blue crabs “hibernate” by burying themselves in the mud – scientists can develop the most accurate estimate of the Bay’s blu crab population.
For more information about the blue crab survey results, view this presentation from Maryland DNR.
A report recently released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) notes that the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs appear to be making a comeback, but recommends that the jurisdictions that manage the blue crab fishery continue to keep conservation measures in place.
The 2010 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report cites the success of recent measures to control blue crab harvest and emphasizes the need for these conservation efforts to continue into the future.
The annual winter dredge survey completed in April estimated that there are 315 million harvestable adult crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, an increase of 41 percent from 2009.
Although the interim target of 200 million harvestable crabs has been surpassed for two years in a row, that is not enough time to know if the population can be maintained over the long term. The CBSAC recommends that management and conservations efforts be maintained until long-term monitoring can show that the population is sustainable.
Other report recommendations include a sex-specific assessment to determine if specific regulations for male and female crabs are effective, and an assessment of incidental crab mortality.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee includes fishery scientists from the University of Maryland, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, NOAA Fisheries Service and the states of Maryland and Virginia. The advisory report was approved by the executive committee of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will work with CBSAC to reevaluate by 2012 the interim rebuilding target of 200 million harvestable crabs. The new target will be based on an updated assessment to be completed in 2011.
Read the full 2010 Blue Crab Advisory Report from NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office website.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population has risen to an estimated 658 million, a 60 percent increase from last year and the highest level since 1997, according to the latest annual Bay-wide winter dredge survey.
In 2009, the survey estimated the blue crab population at 400 million, and in 2008 the population was estimated at 280 million.
The low blue crab population in 2008 prompted Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to implement emergency fishery regulations to reduce harvest pressure on female crabs by 34 percent.
The 2010 population estimate indicates that the blue crab fishery management measures put into place by Maryland and Virginia in 2008 have been successful at rebuilding the blue crab population.
“The substantial rise in abundance of mature crabs and juveniles was clearly a response of the crab population to unprecedented management actions, such as the closure of the winter dredge fishery by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and partner agencies,” said Dr. Rom Lipcius, who directs the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) component of the annual dredge survey. “The increase was neither a random event nor a reflection of improved environmental conditions.”
However, the governors of Maryland and Virginia stressed that the states must continue to work together.
“While we are making progress, our work is not done and we are committed to working with our partners to achieve our ultimate goal of a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said.
“Two years does not make a trend,” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said. “The scientific evidence shows our management measures are working but we need to continue along this path in order to ensure the Bay's crab population returns to robustness and remains at that level.”
The Bay-wide dredge survey also estimates the abundance of adult, spawning-age crabs. There are an estimated 315 million spawning-age crabs in the Bay, up from 223 million in 2009 as reported in the 2009 Bay Barometer. This is the highest population of spawning-age blue crabs recorded since 1993. Crab reproduction this year was the sixth-highest in the 21-year survey history.
The annual winter dredge survey is conducted by VIMS and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It is the most comprehensive and statistically sound of the blue crab surveys conducted in the Chesapeake Bay and serves as the main indicator of blue crab stock status.
For more information about the blue crab population figures, view this technical presentation by VIMS.
Additionally, preliminary figures indicate that the 2009 Bay-wide blue crab harvest was 53.7 million pounds, which equates to approximately 43 percent of the population, below the target harvest level of 46 percent. Watermen actually harvested more crabs during the 2009 season than in seven of the past 10 years.
Based on the final assessment of crab harvest by NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC may consider modest modifications to the current blue crab regulations by early summer.
Scientists estimate that a total of 400 million blue crabs overwintered in the Bay in 2008-2009, up from 280 million in 2007-2008, according to data from the latest Bay-wide winter dredge survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
The overall abundance of adult crabs in 2008-2009 is estimated to be about 240 million crabs, slightly more than the interim target level of 200 million set by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee in early 2008. The increase in adult crab abundance is due primarily to a near doubling of adult females, coupled with a 50 percent increase in adult male abundance.
It is expected that the large number of mature female crabs conserved last year will significantly increase the chances of a strong spawn in 2009.
“The sharp increase in crab abundance was not a random event, nor was it due to improved environmental conditions. It was clearly due to the recent management actions," said Dr. Rom Lipcius, who directs the VIMS component of the dredge survey. “Now, we have to ensure that these females survive to spawn this summer, and that their offspring produce a healthy spawning stock in coming years.”
Despite the adult population increase, the abundance of young-of-the-year crabs (those less than 2 inches across the carapace) did not change measurably from last year, and remains below the 18-year survey average. These crabs will become vulnerable to fishing pressure later this year and represent the 2010 spawning potential.
Last spring, in response to scientific data that showed the Bay-wide population of blue crabs had plunged 70 percent since 1993, the governors of Maryland and Virginia agreed to work collaboratively on a Bay-wide effort to rebuild the species by reducing the harvest of the spawning stock of female blue crabs by 34 percent.
“While we are still above our target exploitation rate of 46 percent, the survey results represent an important first success in moving the Bay’s blue crab population to a healthier state,” said Maryland DNR Secretary John Griffin. “Now we must have the discipline to stay the course, so that we may ultimately achieve and maintain a sustainable fishery.”
For more on the 2008-2009 blue crab data, including graphs with historic population trends, visit DNR’s website.
Watermen in Maryland and Virginia caught fewer of the Bay’s female blue crabs in 2008, achieving the targeted reduction of 34 percent set by the governors of the two states last spring, according to preliminary harvest data released by both states.
Virginia officials announced last month that the state’s watermen hauled in 9.4 million pounds of female crabs from the Bay -- a 37 percent decline from the average catch in 2004-2007. The total blue crab harvest fell by 29.5 percent in the Virginia portion of the Bay.
In Maryland, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Service said an estimated 8.5 to 10.5 million pounds of female crabs were landed in 2008. This was a reduction of 28 to 36 percent from the average catch of the previous three years. (The Maryland figures are presented as a range because of discrepancies between 2008 harvest reports and concurrent, independent surveys by DNR.)
Prior to new, Bay-wide regulations put in place last spring by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the female crab harvest in the Maryland portion of the Bay was projected to be 13 million pounds, according to Tom O’Connell, director of DNR’s Fisheries Service.
“Our estimates show a significant reduction in the number of female crabs taken in 2008,” said O’Connell.
While annual harvest numbers are an important tool, the most reliable measure of the health of the Bay’s blue crab population is the annual Bay-wide winter dredge survey, which is currently underway. Scientists will use data from the 2009 winter dredge as the basis for potential management actions in the future.
Harvest restrictions will remain in effect in both states when the 2009 crabbing season begins this spring. In Virginia, watermen will be required to set 15 percent fewer crab pots than last year, while in Maryland, officials will address unused crab licenses that have the potential to re-enter the fishery.
Read more about Maryland’s blue crab harvest data and methodology at DNR’s website.
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service has awarded Maryland $2.2 million in federal fishery disaster funding to assist the state’s watermen and help revitalize the Bay’s struggling blue crab industry.
The $2.2 million is the first installment of $10 million the state expects to receive from the federal government over the next three years. The funding comes four months after the National Marine Fisheries Service declared a federal fishery disaster for the soft shell and peeler segments of the Bay’s blue crab fishery.
“The State of Maryland will invest this money in the essential habitat restoration projects and new economic opportunities that will help rebuild our blue crab population and ensure a stronger industry in the future,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Maryland will use the federal funding to:
The federal funding adds to $3 million in state funds that Maryland has set aside to employ watermen and assist seafood businesses affected by the crab decline.
Virginia is also eligible for $10 million in federal aid to help watermen affected by the blue crab fishery failure. The National Marine Fisheries Service is still working with Virginia on its plan to use the funding.
In spring 2008, Gov. O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine came together to set new regulations that reduced female blue crab harvest in the Bay by 34 percent. Overfishing and pollution are cited as two causes that have led to the decline of the blue crab, an iconic Chesapeake species.
Residents of the Bay watershed can do their part to reduce pollution and help the Bay’s blue crabs by:
For more information about the federal blue crab funding, visit Maryland DNR’s website.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has declared a commercial fishery failure for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery after finding a dramatic downturn in the soft shell and peeler segments of the region's crab industry.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the harvest value of soft shell crabs in Maryland and Virginia has declined by 41 percent since the late 1990s, which has had a significant impact on the region’s economy and watermen who harvest blue crabs.
The disaster declaration comes after the governors of Maryland and Virginia implemented emergency regulations this spring to reduce the female blue crab harvest by 34 percent. Pollution, habitat loss, lack of prey and an overabundance of predators are all factors that have contributed to the blue crab decline.
The disaster declaration is an important step toward eligibility for federal aid for Maryland and Virginia watermen as the states work to rebuild the Bay’s blue crab population.
A disaster declaration is issued when the Department of Commerce determines that a decline in the harvest of a fish or shellfish species is a commercial fishery failure. For the blue crab fishery, NOAA Fisheries Service analyzed economic and biological information provided by Maryland and Virginia, as well as from NOAA scientists and economists.
Visit NOAA’s website for more information about the blue crab disaster declaration.
The population of spawning-age blue crabs in the Bay fell to 120 million in 2007-08, compared with 143 million in 2006-07, according to the 2008 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report. Both of these figures are below the interim target population of 200 million spawning-age crabs.
The report also shows:
The Blue Crab Advisory Report, developed by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, is based primarily on data from the 2007-08 baywide winter dredge survey. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee includes fisheries scientists from universities, the states of Maryland and Virginia, and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
The abundance of spawning-age crabs (age 1+) is a key indicator of the status of the blue crab stock and is used to determine if the population is overfished.
In 2007, 43.5 million pounds of crabs were taken from the Bay -- the lowest recorded harvest since 1945. Based on the historical relationship between crab population and the following year’s harvest, the 2008 harvest was expected to remove about 67 percent of the Bay’s adult crab population.
In light of these figures, fisheries managers in Maryland and Virginia and at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission have implemented emergency regulations to reduce fishing pressure on female crabs. These changes are expected to reduce the amount of crabs taken from the Bay and help sustain a healthy crab population.
Residents of Hampton Roads and the Greater Richmond area are learning how to “Save the Crabs, then Eat ‘Em” this spring with the return of Chesapeake Club, a multi-media campaign that educates residents about the Bay's nutrient pollution problem in a humorous way.
The Chesapeake Club campaign urges Bay watershed residents to hold off on fertilizing their lawns until the fall, when rainstorms are less frequent and the ground is better able to absorb nutrients contained in fertilizer. This helps protect the Bay's remaining blue crab population, which has been declining in recent years.
There are more than five million lawns in the Bay watershed, each potentially contributing fertilizer, pesticides and other harmful chemicals to the Bay via runoff into streams and storm water drains . Excess nutrients in the Bay cause algal blooms, which block sunlight from reaching bay grasses and deplete the water of oxygen needed to support all aquatic life.
Blue crabs use bay grasses as a nursery and molting area because the grasses protect the crabs from predators. Bay scientists have found that 30 times more juvenile crabs live in bay grasses than in areas without grasses.
Why should we care about the crabs? Because they're the main ingredient in those famous, delicious Chesapeake crab cakes, of course!
To help save the seafood, Chesapeake Club offers yard care tips so you can create a blue crab-friendly lawn. And if you'd rather leave it up to the professionals, there are a growing number of lawn care providers offering the Chesapeake Club standard of yard care.
Think of all the things you could do this spring instead of fertilizing your lawn: Go on a day trip to one of the Bay watershed's many natural or historic areas. Take a romantic getaway to a Bay island. Try a great new recipe for crab soup. Or eat out at an area restaurant that supports the Chesapeake Club.
So skip the lawn fertilizer this spring. Because is the grass really greener if all the blue crabs are gone?
The blue crab may be the most popular resident in the Chesapeake Bay. Its likeness appears on signs, t-shirts and storefronts throughout the watershed. Moreover, it's the main ingredient in the delectable dish that makes the region famous: crab cakes.
To ensure numbers of this famous crustacean remain healthy, Bay Program partners closely monitor both crab populations, or “crab abundance,” and pressure from fishing.
In 2006, the abundance of adult crabs in the Chesapeake Bay remained well below the restoration goal. According to scientists, the current population of legal-sized crabs is at 57 percent of the Bay Program's 232 million pound “biomass” goal. (Biomass is the quantity of living matter, expressed as a concentration or weight per unit area.) These numbers are estimated through winter dredge and summer trawl surveys. Although not at a historic low, this marks the 10th consecutive year the crab population has been below the restoration goal.
But the news is not all bad for crabs. In 2005, the crab harvest was below 46 percent of the adult population, which conserved 20 percent of the breeding stock. This marks the first time since 1997 that the crab harvest met this management target. If sustained, this level of fishing pressure should conserve enough breeding crabs to lead to a larger abundance in the future. Harvest pressure for 2006 will be estimated once the current winter dredge surveys are complete.
So while the total abundance of blue crabs continues below the restoration goal, there is hope that fishing pressure will remain steady around the management target level in coming years. That could lead to higher crab populations in the coming years, which is good news for crabs and crab lovers everywhere.