Tuana Phillips, a staffer with the Chesapeake Research Consortium, holds an adult blue crab during a trip to Smith Island, Maryland. With its bright blue claws, the colorful crustacean is one of the most recognizable species in the Chesapeake Bay. A blue crab’s strong claws allow it to crack open or pry apart the shells of clams, snails, mussels and more in its search for a meal.
But blue crabs don’t just use their claws to find food: they can also use the powerful pincers to defend themselves. Their sharp and strong grip can be quite painful, as anyone who has ever been pinched by one can confirm. And if threatened, a crab may break off claw or leg to try to escape predators; the limb will later regrow through a process called regeneration.
Crab claws have made headlines in recent months with viral images and videos showing the crustaceans wielding everything from cigarettes to knives. And though these posts may seem silly, as Jack Cover of Baltimore’s National Aquarium told The Washington Post, the crabs in these images are “absolutely distressed”: either unable to let go of what they’re holding or instinctively clamping their claws in self-defense. If you see a blue crab, it’s best to avoid putting anything—especially your fingers—between its claws.
Learn more about Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab.
Image by Will Parson
The Chesapeake Bay’s adult female blue crab population has increased 92 percent since the population was surveyed last winter. While the current adult female blue crab abundance of 194 million is well above the overfishing threshold, it remains below the 215 million abundance target.
Maryland and Virginia estimate the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2016 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 411 million to 553 million since last winter. Results also show the number of adult females has risen from 101 million to 194 million. The number of juvenile crabs has increased from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the long-term average.
“The crab stock has been on a rollercoaster for most [of] the last decade,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull in a media release. “We’ve seen a few great years of reproduction followed by awful years of abundance. Two years does not make a trend, and this news inspires both wary optimism and cautious management.”
In the short term, Maryland officials do predict a good crab season. “Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise Bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service Director Dave Blazer in a media release. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health, and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement committed to maintaining a sustainable blue crab population based on a target of 215 million adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from states, academic institutions and the federal government, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2016 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
From December to March, assessing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population means long stints on the water for scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Every year the blue crab winter dredge survey samples 1,500 randomly-chosen sites divided equally between Virginia and Maryland waters, in a partnership between VIMS and the Fisheries Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The data provides a bay-wide estimate of blue crab populations that helps agencies determine how many can be harvested without hampering the recovery of one of the Chesapeake Bay’s defining resources.
After a clear, calm sunrise in the second week of March, the VIMS team left their headquarters in Gloucester Point, Virginia, with 742 of 750 sites under their belt. Their boat, the R/V Bay Eagle, is their home during trips lasting up to four days at a time. With just eight sites left to sample using their six-foot-wide crab dredge, this would be a relatively short day—the last one of the season.
“That sort of puts a smile on our face,” said Mike Seebo, a VIMS marine scientist who has worked on the winter dredge survey since its second winter in 1990.
The dredge relies on the blue crab’s winter behavior of burrowing into the mud and lying dormant when the temperature drops below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When the crabs wake up in the coming months, the mature females will migrate to lower-salinity spawning grounds in the Bay’s tributaries, a journey of up to 150 miles for crabs reaching the northernmost habitats.
And many of the crabs will end up harvested, steamed and covered in Old Bay seasoning. For one of the region’s mainstays, the numbers coming from the survey teams will be highly awaited.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Video by Steve Droter
Blue crabs are one of the most recognized and oft-consumed species in the Chesapeake Bay. Watermen harvest the olive green, eight-legged crustacean with trotlines and crab pots so tourists and watershed natives alike can eat them at bars, restaurants and paper-covered picnic tables all summer long. But despite continued demand, the commercial harvest of blue crabs has dropped by two-thirds over the last two and a half decades.
Since 1990, commercial watermen have harvested more than 1.6 billion pounds of blue crabs from the Bay. Data show commercial harvest has experienced a steady decline, and last year hit the lowest level recorded in 25 years: 35 million pounds.
Why was harvest so low? “A combination of factors,” said Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee Coordinator Emilie Franke. One factor that often affects harvest is the set of regulations put in place to conserve the population. Last season, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission responded to relatively low blue crab abundance by putting additional commercial harvest regulations in place. But these regulations alone do not determine harvest levels. Low crab abundance can also lower harvest, making it harder for crabbers to catch crabs in the first place. In other words, the explanation could lay in the blue crab population and the host of factors that affect it.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) brings together scientists and representatives from the federal government, state governments and academic institutions. It meets each year to review the results of blue crab surveys and develop management advice.
“Chesapeake Bay blue crabs were considered depleted in 2014 due to low female abundance," Franke said. "But jurisdictions have harvested below the female exploitation target for seven consecutive years. So there are obviously other factors at play affecting population and harvest levels. A lot of these factors are things fishery managers can't control."
On the list? Natural variability, water quality, habitat quality, predator and prey abundance, disease, competition and overwintering mortality, all of which affect the amount of blue crabs in the Bay. (Overwintering mortality affected all segments of the blue crab population in 2015, for instance, and led to an estimated 15 percent drop in overall abundance.)
Tracking these factors—including those we can control—is critical to blue crab management. This is one reason accurate harvest reporting is so important. In its annual report on the status of the blue crab population, CBSAC recommended continued improvement in the quality of catch and fishing effort information submitted by commercial and recreational harvesters. Jurisdictions have explored new harvest technologies in recent years, and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a commitment to improve harvest accountability.
The state of Maryland’s electronic harvest reporting pilot program is an example of new harvest reporting technology in action. While traditional paper-based reporting can be inefficient and prone to errors, electronic reporting can provide more timely, accurate and verifiable information to fishery managers.
“Increased harvest accountability provides managers with an accurate picture of the fishery, which helps inform future management decisions,” Franke said. “Getting a better understanding of catch and fishing effort is a big priority.”
While the abundance of adult female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is below target, fisheries experts have reported the blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring.
According to the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, released by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2015 crabbing season saw 101 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay. This marks a 47 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females, which the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks as an indicator of Bay health. Because blue crab abundance is above the 70 million threshold, the blue crab stock is not considered depleted. And because just 17 percent of adult females were harvested in 2014—well below the 25.5 percent target—overfishing is not occurring.
In its report, CBSAC urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to maintain a risk-averse management approach to protect juvenile crabs, whose numbers fluctuate from year to year. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT), also recommended evaluating the establishment of a Bay-wide allocation-based management framework.
An allocation-based management framework would allocate an annual “total allowable catch” of male and female crabs to Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC. In the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program committed to evaluating the establishment of this framework. “[This report] directly supports our efforts to achieve the blue crab outcomes set forth in the [Watershed] Agreement, using the best science available to provide meaningful input to management decisions made by jurisdictions,” said Peyton Robertson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office Director and Sustainable Fisheries GIT Chair, in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population has seen a modest rise, increasing 38 percent since the population was counted last winter. While an increase in blue crabs is an indicator of Bay health, the adult female crab population remains below its target, indicating the variability of the blue crab population and the complexities of managing the fishery.
Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population through an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up crabs over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the 2015 winter dredge survey show the Bay’s total blue crab population has increased from 297 million to 411 million since last winter. Results also show the number of spawning-age females has risen from a depleted 69 million to 101 million. The number of juvenile crabs has jumped from 199 million to 269 million, which is just above the long-term average.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the cold winter and resulting low water temperatures contributed to a “substantial mortality” among blue crabs, killing an estimated 19 percent of adults.
“We are pleased that crab numbers increased despite the harsh winter temperatures,” said DNR Secretary Mark Belton in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks the adult female blue crab population as an indicator of Bay health. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), which includes scientists and representatives from the federal government, state governments and academic institutions, will use this data to make recommendations on sustaining the blue crab population in its 2015 Blue Crab Advisory Report, expected to be released this summer.
For many of the people living upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, daily life doesn’t involve crab pots or oyster dredges. A group of such Bay novices — including one member who had never been on a boat — assembled in Crisfield, Md., this fall to take a ferry to Smith Island, one of the last two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Actually a small cluster of low-lying stretches of land, Smith Island and its Virginia neighbor Tangier Island carry a rich cultural history dating back to the 1600s. Over the years, they have been subjected to the extreme weather conditions in the open Chesapeake Bay and forces of sea level rise and land subsidence that have already claimed surrounding islands. The trip, organized by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup, gave the foresters the chance to experience the unique life of a Chesapeake waterman.
“These participants are engaged in work throughout the watershed that directly benefits the quality of the Bay, but often they have very little experience on the Bay itself,” said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Forests for the Bay initiative, who has facilitated the excursion for the past two years. “This trip is a way to connect their work with a community that relies so intimately with a healthy Bay.”
Over the course of two and a half days, the group of foresters followed educators from Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smith Island environmental education center, taking in the unique culture, exploring the changing environment and finding new connections that bring the Bay closer to home.
“I think this group was able to draw similarities between the rural communities they work with — who rely on the natural resources on the land — with this rural community that relies on the natural resources of the Bay,” said Highfield.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Sunken fishing traps are having a big impact on wildlife in coastal waters around the United States, including blue crabs and the watermen who depend on them in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the problem of derelict fishing gear—which includes lost and discarded nets and traps—is “pervasive, persistent and largely preventable.” Whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, derelict gear can continue to “ghost fish,” catching fish, turtles and other species and damaging seafloor habitats. In some cases, dead organisms continue to serve as bait until the traps stop catching fish.
“People may not realize that derelict traps can catch not just the target species of the fishery, but also other animals, including threatened and endangered species where populations are already very low,” said scientist Ariana Sutton-Grier in a media release.
In the Chesapeake Bay, derelict crab traps impact blue crabs, diamondback terrapins and other species. Between 35 and 40 percent of derelict traps are ghost fishing, with the highest catch rates taking place in Maryland waters. Here, about 20 blue crabs per trap per year are caught and killed, which researchers attribute to gear that is not designed to allow species to escape when traps become derelict.
The loss of fishing gear has an economic impact, too. According to the report, derelict traps in Virginia waters have caught as many as 913,000 crabs in a year, with an estimated worth of $304,000, or one percent of the Commonwealth’s annual commercial blue crab landings. In addition to the impact on commercial fisheries, there is a irect cost to watermen to replace lost traps, which range from $60 to $600.
Traps with biodegradable escape panels—which are inexpensive and easy to install—have been successfully tested in the Bay, with no adverse effects on blue crab catch. These, along with boat lanes that keep propellers away from trap lines and improved outreach and education to watermen, could pose solutions to the region’s derelict fishing trap problem.
With a bright yellow can and a distinct, delicious taste, Old Bay seasoning is a fixture on spice racks around the Chesapeake Bay. Named after a steamship that traveled between Baltimore and Norfolk, Virginia, the seasoning was purchased from creator Gustav Brunn’s company by McCormick & Co. in 1990. While it’s most often used to season crabs, shrimp and other seafood, adventurous eaters have added the spice to a range of dishes over the years. Looking past that classic steamed crab, here are eight Old Bay recipes we adore.
Image courtesy The Dog Mom
1. Old Bay potato chips. While some snack companies sell Old Bay-flavored potato chips pre-made and in a bag, it’s possible to make your own! Cut russet potatoes into thin slices, use a paper towel to dry the slices out and deep fry them in your choice of oil. Cook them, drain them and season liberally. Toss to coat. Check out this recipe from Kayla Black at The Dog Mom.
2. Old Bay popcorn. Or, as Courtney from Sweet C’s Designs calls it, crab corn. Let’s face it: salt doesn’t always cut it when you’re seasoning your popcorn. So ditch the traditional seasoning—and the pre-packaged products—in favor of sugar, garlic powder and Old Bay to create a summertime snack.
Image courtesy donhomer/Flickr
3. Old Bay beer. The Chesapeake has inspired a range of beers, from the Striped Bass Pale Ale by Devils Backbone Brewing Company to the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout by Fordham. This summer, the Flying Dog Brewery released the first beer (to our knowledge) that tastes like Old Bay: Dead Rise ale, which uses citrus hop notes and a tart finish to complement the region’s signature spice. We don’t have access to their recipe, but we do know the seasonal beverage is available from May through September in bars, restaurants and stores across the mid-Atlantic.
4. Old Bay biscuits. Butter, cheese and bread are three key ingredients to any good snack. Add Old Bay, and you get a knock-off of the cheddar biscuits passed out by the basketful at seafood restaurant chain Red Lobster. Shawn from I Wash You Dry has created a 20-minute recipe that yields a dozen biscuits. She dares you to stop at just one.
Image courtesy light_seeker/Flickr
5. Old Bay Bloody Marys. The Bloody Mary is a classic cocktail. Served at brunches across the region, it contains vodka, tomato and lemon juice, and a range of other condiments, from Tabasco to crushed horseradish. To serve the drink Chesapeake-style, rim the glass with Old Bay seasoning and consider replacing the traditional celery stalk garnish with a shrimp or crab claw. Saveur magazine has published the recipe used by Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C.
6. Old Bay deviled eggs. Deviled eggs are so named because they are made with a bit of spice: mustard, pepper or paprika are mixed with the yolks of halved, hard-boiled eggs and spooned back into each egg “cup.” Old Bay can add an extra kick, whether incorporated into the yolk mixture or sprinkled on top. Check out this recipe from Martha Stewart.
Image courtesy Kid Can Eat!
7. Old Bay edamame. Edamame, or immature soybeans, are served boiled or steamed and sprinkled with salt. Popular in Japanese cuisine, the pods can often be found in the frozen food section of U.S. grocery stores. Rich in protein, fiber and folic acid, the beans pack a nutritional punch. Adding Old Bay ensures the beans pack a punch to your taste buds, too. Check out this recipe from Terita at Kid Can Eat!.
8. Old Bay ice cream. In 2012, Alonso’s Restaurant won bragging rights and 70 pounds of Old Bay seasoning in the spice company’s Taste of Baytriotism promotion. It was selected because it served, among other things, Old Bay ice cream. If you can’t make it to the Baltimore eatery, you can make your own! Regan at The Tasty Kitchen created a recipe that contrasts candied potato chips—crushed and coated with brown sugar and Old Bay—with smooth vanilla ice cream.
Looking for more Chesapeake recipes? Find them on our Pinterest board!
It is a refreshing June morning as the sun shines down on Solomons, Maryland, causing the Patuxent River to sparkle in its reflection. A crew of four Washington, D.C., area chefs stands on a wooden dock alongside Steve Vilnit, the Director of Fisheries Marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), eagerly awaiting the arrival of our captain, Bruce Abbott, and his fishing vessel.
Vilnit coordinates educational trips intended to connect local chefs with living resources. By creating these experiences, he is able to spread the word about the importance of buying local seafood and illustrate the hard work that goes into moving fresh seafood from the ocean to the dinner table.
The O’Dark Thirty appears in the distance and sidles up to the dock for the crew and guests to climb aboard. Once everyone is situated, Abbott heads east, out of the mouth of the Patuxent and into the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. About 20 minutes go by before the boat comes to a halt next to one of roughly 1,500 pound nets in the Bay. Pound nets are used by watermen to harvest large quantities of a specific fish species, like perch, menhaden, croaker or striped bass. Vilnit describes the net and why it is so popular: “The way a pound net works is by playing off of a fish’s natural instinct to head to deeper water when they feel threatened. The net funnels them into the center where they are trapped,” he said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Vilnit explained that, from a sustainability standpoint, pound nets are a great fishing method. Despite its high bycatch rate, the majority of the fish in the net are kept alive. “The fish are just swimming around in the net until the fishermen come. What they’ll do when they pull the net is, they start cinching it up so it pulls all the fish together and congregates them and then they scoop them out one-by-one with a dip net and release all the bycatch.”
The journey continued towards Maryland’s Eastern Shore, stopping next for a live demonstration of trotlining. Trotlines are a favored method for catching blue crabs in the Bay, but can only be used in its tributaries, as they can pose a navigational hazard for boats; crab pots are standard gear for those harvesting crabs in the main stem.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
After the demonstration, Vilnit passed around the clawed critters for an up-close-and-personal anatomy lesson. “The apron—or [flap] on the belly—of the female crab is rounded like the Capitol dome and the apron on the male looks like the Washington Monument. You can also see a difference in the claw color: the females have what they call fingernail polish—it’s the red tips on the claws—versus the males that have blue claws,” Vilnit said.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
The final leg of our trip took us to Barren Island Oysters, a sustainability-minded, high-end oyster company based out of Hoopers Island, Maryland. Owner and founder Tim Devine launched the farm slightly more than a year ago and has already seen tremendous success.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
Devine’s company is an authentic example of the power of proper research and collaboration. “I had a lot of time to do some market research as I waited the 18 months to get my permits for this business,” Devine said. “In the meantime I was shooting photography for a magazine that took me around to different restaurants, so I would ask the chefs, ‘Hey, what do you want?’” What he found was a high demand for the disease-resistant, triploid oyster.
Listening to the calls from the chefs, Devine began to grow triploid oysters in an unorthodox fashion: chipping off new shell growth forced the oysters to not only grow stronger but also develop a deep, uniform, cup-shaped shell. “I think my biggest advantage is that I didn’t know anything coming into this, so I had no history as to how all these people [watermen] do this. Because this is such a new industry and there are many new markets for a premium oyster, I wasn’t stuck in any old ways of farming,” Devine explained.
Image courtesy Jay Fleming/DNR
By openly communicating with chefs, Devine was able to discover a niche market for premium oysters that would meet these chefs’ requests. Vilnit hopes his educational tours will create more relationships of this kind. And for those who cannot get out on the water, signing onto the True Blue and Oyster Pledge programs is a positive way that chefs and restaurateurs can show their establishment’s commitment to fresh, locally harvested seafood.
Fisheries experts have recommended a “risk-averse” approach to managing blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, following poor harvests and a dramatic decline in the abundance of adult female crabs.
Image courtesy bionicteaching/Flickr
In its annual evaluation of the Bay’s blue crab fishery, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) urged the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) to protect female and juvenile crabs in an effort to rebuild the overall population. The committee, which is made up of scientists, academics and government representatives and housed under the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, also recommended establishing sanctuaries to protect females and improving data related to crab harvests and winter death rates.
According to the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the start of the 2014 crabbing season saw 68.5 million adult female crabs in the Bay. This marks a 53 percent decline from last year’s abundance of adult females. This number is based on the results of the winter dredge survey, and is tracked by the Bay Program as an indicator of Bay health. It is below the 215 million target abundance and the 70 million threshold, indicating adult females are in a depleted state.
“The poor performance of the Bay’s 2013 blue crab fishery—the lowest reported harvest in the last 24 years—combined with the winter dredge survey results that indicate a depleted female population warrants management actions to conserve both females and juveniles,” said CBSAC Chair Joe Grist in a media release. “The cold winter and other environmental factors affected the crab population, and we expect that conservative regulations will help females and juveniles—the future of the blue crab population—rebound.”
Earlier this month, The Capital reported that Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC have promised to cut harvests of female crabs by 10 percent. Virginia announced its plans in June, while Maryland and the PRFC are expected to release their regulations soon.
The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, due to a range of factors that include weather patterns, coastal currents and natural predators.
According to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the long, cold winter and resulting low water temperatures killed an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in state waters. This marks one of the worst “cold-kill” events since the state started tracking blue crab populations in 1990.
Both Maryland and Virginia measure the Bay’s blue crab population by conducting an annual winter dredge survey. Over the course of three and a half months, scientists visit 1,500 sites around the Bay, using metal dredges to pull up the crabs that are over-wintering in the mud.
Results of the most recent winter dredge survey show that the Bay’s total blue crab population fell from 300 million to 297 million between 2012 and 2013; the number of spawning-age females fell from 147 million to 69 million, passing the minimum threshold that managers adopted in 2011. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this latter number as an indicator of Bay health, and a decline could be a factor in determining blue crab management methods.
Indeed, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have committed to collaborating on a two-pronged management approach to conserve adult female crabs: first, the groups will work to protect adult females that will be spawning this summer. Second, the groups will work to protect the current population of juvenile females through next spring, in order to build up the population of females that will spawn next year.
“Even though our 2008 conservation measures were designed to allow for naturally occurring fluctuations in crabs, these results are not what we had hoped to see,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell in a media release. “What is most important here is that the structure we put into place to cooperatively manage this fishery is strong, and that we continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to initiate a new stock assessment that could help evaluate our current management framework.”
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) is expected to release their 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report this summer.
Denser grass beds in the Chesapeake Bay could boost the region’s blue crab population, according to a new report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
While researchers have long known that blue crabs use grass beds as sheltered nurseries and feeding grounds, this study is the first to show that denser, higher-quality grass beds hold more crabs than open beds where patches of mud or sand separate plants.
These findings are based on fieldwork conducted between 2007 and 2008, during which scientists used a powerful vacuum to collect blue crabs from 104 sites along the shores of the lower Bay.
Graduate student Gina Ralph led the study and said in a media release that her work suggests “the quality of seagrass habitat can influence the population dynamics of blue crabs on a baywide basis.” But underwater grass abundance has declined in recent years, due to warming waters and sunlight-blocking sediment pollution. Blue crabs, too, have suffered population declines, as pollution, predators and human harvest put pressure on the iconic species.
Learn more about the link between grass beds and blue crabs.
A report on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population reveals a stock that is not overfished and within which overfishing is not occurring.
According to an annual evaluation from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2013 crabbing season saw 147 million adult female crabs in the Bay, which marks a 54 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this female-specific reference point as an indicator of Bay health. While this number is below CBSAC’s target, it is above the committee’s overfished threshold.
Image courtesy smaneal/Flickr
The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, presented by CBSAC at the June meeting of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is based on the results of the winter dredge survey. This annual estimate of the blue crab population is considered the most comprehensive blue crab survey conducted in the Bay.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends taking a risk-averse management approach and making a 10 percent cut to the 2013 female blue crab harvest. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have agreed to pursue the latter recommendation.
CBSAC also recommends better accounting of commercial and recreational harvests and continued efforts to monitor the inactive commercial crabbing licenses in the fishery, which could lead to significant increases in harvest if they were to come into sudden use.
Learn more about the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
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.