Serious Drop in Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

Chesapeake Bay blue crab
Chesapeake Bay blue crab (courtesy Maryland DNR)

Maryland and Virginia natural resources officials got a shock this year after the annual winter crab count. The number of spawning-age female crabs is less than half of last year’s count.

They estimate 69 million female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, falling just below the minimum safe level of 70 million. Last year, they counted 147 million spawning age female crabs.

The overall crabbing harvest stayed at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year, about three-million under last season’s count. But at 297 million it’s a lot less than the 2010 high of 663 million crabs in the Chesapeake Bay area.

The good news of the survey is that juvenile crabs increased 78 percent from the 2013 record low. But without enough female crabs producing more crabs, the overall numbers are worrisome.

“This is disappointing news,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John M.R. Bull.

Number of spawning age female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay
Courtesy Maryland DNR

“We are now faced with two challenges: Conserving adult females through targeted harvest reductions so they survive to spawn this summer, and conserving this new generation of crabs in order to increase their chances of reproducing in even larger numbers next year,” Bull said.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports the long cold winter appears to be one cause of the low level. Colder than normal water over the winter resulted in one of the worst cold-kill events since the start of the survey, causing the death of an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in Maryland.

“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 Maryland DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell.

The decline in spawning age females will be the biggest factor in determining any changes in crab managements throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission will be discussing how to increase the number of crabs over the next couple years.

“With the number of spawning age crabs low, and juveniles at pre-2008 levels for two years running, we will be working with our partners and stakeholders to develop adaptive management strategies that will protect the next generation of spawners,” said Maryland DNR Secretary Joe Gill.

# of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay
Courtesy Maryland DNR

All sides will be reviewing the data and the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Commission will release its 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report sometime in early summer.

They’ve been studying Chesapeake Bay blue crabs since 1990, dredging for crabs — digging into the mud where they’ve buried themselves and not moving around — at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March.

For more information:

Bay-Wide Winter Dredge Survey results (1990 through 2014)

Numbers of crabs listed by size

Commercial crab harvests in Maryland (1929-2008)

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