Survey Confirms Chesapeake Blue Crab Stock Rebounding

BERLIN — State officials late last week announced the Chesapeake Bay’s juvenile crab population is at its highest level on record and the overall blue crab population in the bay is at its highest since 1993.

Joined by stakeholders and elected officials, Governor Martin O’Malley revealed the results of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) annual winter dredge survey. The latest survey, completed in March, appears to signal a continued recovery of Maryland’s favorite crustacean after years of decline.

“Just a few short years ago, the future did not look bright for our blue crab population,” said O’Malley. “Our female crabs were being overfished, and our fishery was at risk of complete collapse. Today’s announcement marks four years in a row of progress to restore the blue crab.”

O’Malley praised the collaborative state and federal partnerships and the cooperation of neighboring Virginia for the record blue crab population numbers.

“The kind of progress we’re making today really only happens when we work together,” he said. “None of us can restore the blue crab alone. We’re all in this together, and it will take all of us working together to achieve a better future for our crabs, our industry, recreational crabbers and crab-lovers across our State.

According to the survey, an estimated 764 million crabs spent this winter in the Bay, nearly 66 percent more than last year. Juvenile crabs reached a record high of 587 million, nearly triple last year’s 207 million. The previous record of 512 million was set in 1997. Senator Barbara Mikulski praised the federal investment in the recovery of the blue crab.

“I’m proud to stand and fight for Maryland’s watermen who faced a potential disaster to their way of life. I fought to put funding in the federal checkbook to support Maryland’s watermen and protect the Bay,” she said. “The replenishment and return of the blue crab is good news for Maryland’s watermen who have been affected by shrinking crab harvests. I will continue to lead Team Maryland in our efforts to protect the Bay and those whose livelihoods depend on it.”

The survey results did sound one cautionary note, which was a decline in the number of spawning-age females from 190 million to 97 million crabs. Despite the downturn, the population remains above the safe threshold level. Preliminary estimates of the 2011 female harvest are below the target of 25.5 percent, again confirming that management measures have continued to be effective at constraining the fishery to appropriate levels.

“The drop in abundance of spawning-age females is neither unusual nor unprecedented,” said DNR Secretary John Griffin. “In fact, we expect this type of variation in populations from year to year. While last year’s severe storms and the warm winter may have had an impact, we are optimistic that our record recruitment will bode well for next year’s adults, both male and female. Meanwhile, it is our job is to make sure that fishing occurs at an appropriate level, which we will continue to do.”

Maryland’s management system of daily catch limits and closed periods is designed to adapt and ensure that annual crab harvests stay balanced with annual shifts in abundance.

“As we have done in years past, we will work with our stakeholders and our advisory commissions to develop a sustainable harvest level equivalent to last year,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell. “The preliminary bay-wide harvest for 2011 is estimated to be 67.3 million pounds, again confirming that a robust industry can coexist with regulations designed to rebuild a self-sustaining, healthy blue crab population.”

Estimates of abundance are developed separately for young of the year crabs, mature female crabs, and adult male crabs. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2012 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.

“It is encouraging to not only see an improving crab population but also a management system that is working,” said Bill Goldsborough, director of Fisheries for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We applaud DNR and Governor O’Malley and encourage them to stay the course and continue the science based management approach that has led to this resurgence in the Chesapeake blue crab.”

DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have conducted the primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population annually since 1990. The survey employs crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March. Sampling during winter when blue crabs are usually buried in the mud and stationary, allows scientists to develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the Bay.

Through a historic collaboration in 2008, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission took strong coordinated action to reduce harvest pressure on female crabs by 34 percent. At that time, scientists from all three jurisdictions deemed conservation measures necessary as blue crabs suffered near historic lows in spawning stock.