DNR: crab populations up for Chesapeake Bay
ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s blue crab season started about two weeks ago, and the population estimate from the 2016 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey “bodes well for a better harvest this year,” according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
According to DNR, the survey indicates a 35 percent increase — an estimated total of 553 million — from last year’s Bay-wide crab population.
“Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise Bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” DNR Fisheries Service Director Dave Blazer said. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
The news comes two years after a winter dredge survey by DNR that pegged the population of spawning-age female crabs below an overfishing threshold level of 70 million. The 2015 winter dredge survey saw a 38 percent population boost from that year, though.
According to DNR, improvements were seen in all age groups of male and female crabs.
The spawning female stock nearly doubled from 101 to 194 million, but is still below a goal level of 215 million established in 2011, DNR said. The adult male stock more than doubled from 44 to 91 million, which is the second highest level since 1995, DNR said.
The juvenile crab abundance increased slightly from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the 27-year average, DNR said.
DNR said the 2015 Bay-wide crab harvest increased by 42 percent over 2014 to 50 million pounds and remained at sustainable levels for the eighth consecutive year. This combined with increased abundance means that a slight liberalization of harvest limits for female crabs may be warranted this summer, DNR said.
“Our experts will now discuss the survey results with our internal and external stakeholders,” Blazer said. “Any modest adjustment to the current regulations, be it season length or bushel limit, will be considered only after the department receives input from all parties.”
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, blue crabs have less of a tolerance for colder water temperatures, so in cold weather they relocate to deeper waters and spend the winter months in a dormant state burrowed in muddy or sandy bottoms.
Once the water temperature starts to rise, so do blue crabs.
Brenda Davis, the Blue Crab Program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said in a phone interview in early April that the general rule of thumb is crabs will start entering crab pots when the water temperature is around 50 degrees, and will start hanging on a trotline at between 55 and 60 degrees.
Even with population increase, some were still cautions about blue crab management options.
Chris Moore, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the results of the survey indicates the current management plan by Maryland and Virginia is working.
“However, fishery managers should remain cautious as the number of adult, female blue crabs, while increased in this year’s survey, are still below the levels that science recommends,” Moore said. “Continued conservative management of the fishery and improving water quality by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint are the keys to a building and sustaining a healthy crab population.”
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In this 2015 file photo, a bushel of Maryland blue crabs from the Chester River sit ready to be shipped. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimated a 35 percent increase in the Bay’s blue crab population from the 2015 survey.
Waterman Jim Reihl watches on his deadrise workboat, the Mary Ann, as patent tongs come up from the bottom of Peach Orchard oyster bar near Rock Hall on Nov. 14, 2014. Amendments to an oyster fishery-related bill that passed on the last day of Maryland’s legislative session sought to address some concerns expressed by watermen and lawmakers who represent them.