Report Advises ‘Cautious’ Crabbing After 18 Percent Decline in Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population

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The results of this year’s annual crab population survey may have Marylanders feeling a little salty.

After two years of growth in the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population, the number of Maryland’s favorite crustaceans declined by nearly a fifth in the last year, according to the newest Blue Crab Advisory Report. The official count was 455 million crabs, down from 553 million in 2016.

It sounds odd, considering the steady growth and the recent news that female crab numbers had rebounded to their highest level in almost three decades. However, according to the report, the future (at least the near future) is all about the children. Juvenile crab numbers declined 54 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“The highly variable nature of blue crabs was on full display this past year,” said Glenn Davis, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, in a statement. “The largest abundance of spawning females from the Winter Dredge Survey time series was great news, and demonstrated what can happen when jurisdictions adhere to science-based management.”

On the flip side, “the low recruitment served as a reminder that large inter-annual fluctuations can be part of the norm and that managing blue crabs is a continuous challenge,” he said.

According to the committee, a panel of experts that develops the advisory report every year, overharvesting of female crabs was not to blame. The percentage of harvested lady crabs (16 percent) was well below the target for exploitation (25.5 percent), the level at which harvesting is considered healthy and starts to approach unhealthier levels, and overfishing (34 percent). That share has actually remained below the target level for nine straight years, since officials undertook management measures aimed at preserving female blue crab populations.

However, commercial harvesting did rise by a fifth from last year, with the total reaching approximately 60 million pounds of crabs.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the population is sustainable, and that crab numbers tend to vary widely based on weather, water temperature, fishing pressure and other conditions.

However, the committee did recommend crabbers play it safe. For one, they said, the industry might consider scaling back to allow juvenile crabs from this year to keep growing so that they can spawn next year. They also said those responsible for tracking crab numbers need to keep improving the methods behind their de facto crab census.

So get your crabs in now, Baltimoreans. Assuming Maryland’s crabbers fall in line with the committee’s recommendations and scale things back this year, the delicious crustaceans could be in shorter supply for consumption this fall.

Ethan McLeod
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