With the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population at its lowest ebb in more than 30 years, Maryland and Virginia are moving to curtail harvests in one of the region’s most valuable fisheries.

The 2022 winter dredge survey found an estimated 227 million crabs in the Bay and its tributaries this year — fewer than at any time since the survey began in 1990. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Fisheries regulators in both states have proposed new catch restrictions, with plans to finalize them by the end of June. In Maryland, tighter limits for both commercial and recreational crabbing would take effect in July and for the first time would limit commercial harvests of male crabs, not just females. New commercial restrictions in Virginia would begin in October and continue until the crabbing season ends on Nov. 30.

The specifics vary by state, but the aim is the same: to leave more crabs in the Bay to reproduce and, it is hoped, reverse the worrisome decline of the iconic crustacean.

The annual winter dredge survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Virginia Institute of Marine Science found an estimated 227 million crabs in the Bay and its tributaries this year — fewer than at any time since the survey began in 1990.

Big swings in crab abundance are not uncommon from one year to the next, but scientists say the recent downturn is especially troubling. While the survey’s estimate for female crabs remained within the range believed sufficient to sustain the population, reproduction has been subpar for three years running. The estimate of juvenile crabs hit an all-time low in 2021 and improved only slightly this year to the second-lowest abundance.

Every year since 1990, Maryland and Virginia have conducted a winter dredge survey, inventorying crabs collected by dredging 1,500 spots around the Bay and its tributaries. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Rom Lipcius, the VIMS researcher who oversees the Virginia portion of the winter dredge survey, said he hasn’t been this concerned about the Chesapeake crab population since the 1990s when overfishing thinned the species’ breeding stock.

Today, he said, the prized fishery seems to be caught in a “vicious cycle”: Paltry numbers of young crabs grow up to become meager breeding populations, which produce another small class of young. And then the cycle repeats itself.

Scientists aren’t sure why the numbers are down; it could be one or more of several factors, they say. Among them, are unfavorable weather at crucial times of the year or the spread of predators such as the invasive blue catfish.

The Baywide harvest in 2021 was 36.3 million pounds, well below the long-term average of 60 million pounds.

Overfishing doesn’t appear to be the culprit, the scientists say. Commercial and recreational boats are harvesting crabs at a rate well below the maximum threshold established a decade ago for adult females. Still, Lipcius said, tougher harvest controls are necessary to give the beleaguered species a better chance to rebound.

He and other scientists are urging regulators to take steps to ease harvest pressure, especially as the current crop of juvenile crabs reaches legally catchable-size later this year, so they can survive to reproduce and possibly begin to rebuild the population.

Watermen in both states have reluctantly gone along with the call for harvest restrictions, with few questioning the sobering survey results.

The Maryland DNR’s blue crab industry advisory committee voted June 16 to accept cutbacks from 2021 limits of up to 29% in their daily allowable catch of female crabs, depending on the month and the amount or type of gear they’re licensed to use.

They also agreed to first-ever limits on harvests of male crabs from August through September. The daily cap would range from 4 bushels to 15 or 16 bushels, depending on gear and license type.

The catch restrictions would be greatest in late summer and early fall when the current crop of juvenile crabs begins to reach legally catchable size.

“We need to protect some of this year’s juvenile crabs in order to bolster the population,” Genine McClair, DNR’s crab program manager, told the advisory committee at a June 1 meeting. “If the fishery keeps on as it is, it’s very likely that next year’s adult population will be even worse off.”

Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, and at least one other waterman appealed for some “wiggle room” in the pending catch restrictions. They noted that harvests had been unusually meager in the first two months of the season, which for them began April 1.

But DNR officials said that harvest reporting lags too much to let them take that into account and make catch adjustments later this year.

While the Baywide winter dredge survey’s estimate for female crabs remained within the range believed sufficient to sustain the population, reproduction has been subpar for three years running. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Maryland DNR is also planning to restrict recreational crabbing, which is estimated to account for about 8% of all the male crabs harvested in the Bay. The state is weighing three options —  ending the season in mid-October, eight weeks earlier than usual;  prohibiting any recreational catch for two weeks in peak season in August, or limiting the daily catch all season to one bushel instead of two bushels per boat. The department is taking public comments on those through June 19 via this link.

DNR will issue a public notice by the end of June setting commercial and recreational harvest rules for the rest of this year.

In Virginia, the Marine Resources Commission’s blue crab management advisory committee grudgingly agreed to lower daily catch caps beginning Oct. 1, which will remain in effect until the end of the season on Nov. 30. The cutbacks would range from 20% to 42% for crab potters, depending on the number of pots they’re licensed to deploy.

Those lower caps would continue when the 2023 crabbing season opens on March 17 and last until May 15 when they revert to higher traditional caps. In years past, there has also been a brief “low bushel” period, but only for the first two weeks of the season.

Adam Kenyon, the commission’s deputy chief of fisheries, told the industry-dominated advisory committee at its June 8 meeting that “something significant” must be done in response to the dire survey numbers. His advice was stark: Propose strong actions now or prepare for stronger ones to come down later this year or the next.

Such cuts would likely reduce the overall harvest by 4-6%, Kenyon said. But further regulatory actions will need to be taken later this summer or fall to ensure more crabs stay in the water, he warned.

“It kind of reads like blackmail,” said Marshall Cox, a committee member and waterman from Northampton County. “If we don’t do something now, you’re going to come back even harder the next time around.”

The VMRC is set to hold a public hearing and decide on the changes on June 28.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission, a bi-state panel that regulates fishing in the river separating Maryland and Virginia, is consulting its crabbing advisory committee and weighing a special meeting in late July to consider harvest restrictions.

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com.

Timothy Wheeler, Bay Journal Media

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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