The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population grew by an estimated 42% over the last year, a recent dredging survey found, but state officials and advocates continue to have concerns.
The 2023 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey, which was a collaboration between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, estimates there are 323 million blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay in 2023. That’s up from 227 million crabs last year, which was the lowest observed number since the survey began in 1990.
“We are encouraged by the increases in adult crab abundance, but we need to be vigilant given the ongoing low recruitment numbers,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fishing and Boating Services Acting Director Lynn Fegley in a statement. “We haven’t seen a strong year class since 2019 despite maintaining the spawning stock at a level capable of producing one.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also expressed concerns about the Bay’s blue crab population.
“While this year’s numbers show some signs of recovery in the Bay’s blue crab population, there is still plenty of cause for caution,” said Chris Moore, the foundation’s Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist, in a statement. “Because the blue crab population fluctuates annually due to a variety of factors, we hope the improvements observed this year continue over the long term.”
From 2022 to 2023, the number of adult female crabs grew from 97 million crabs to 152 million, the survey found. The adult male crab population increased slightly from 28 million to 55 million in the same period
The number of juvenile crabs remained below average for the fourth year, increasing slightly from 101 million in 2022 to 116 million in 2023.
The deterioration of the Bay’s crab population has been the result of multiple factors, Moore said, and its restoration will similarly require a combination of efforts.
“The recent decline in the Bay’s underwater grasses is likely contributing to low blue crab numbers, as well as pollution and predation by invasive blue catfish,” he said. “Long-term recovery of the Bay’s blue crab population will only be possible through continued wise management of the fishery, combined with actions to improve water quality and address predation from invasive species in the Bay.”
“Due to continued low numbers of male crabs, both states should, at a minimum, maintain measures put in place last year that sought to protect male crabs,” Moore added. “States should also consider additional actions, including pot tagging, which assists in the enforcement of blue crab fishery regulations. Although both states currently have limits on the number of pots watermen can set, these numbers are largely unenforceable, leading to numerous concerns about the amount of crabbing gear in the water. Pot tagging would help the states enforce these limits.”
Biologists dredged at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December 2022 through March 2023 to evaluate crab populations at each of those sites for the dredging survey.