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The number of blue crabs dropped significantly this year, likely because of weather conditions and not overfishing, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and its annual winter dredge survey.

In one year, the total number of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay dropped from 765 million to 300 million, and the number of juvenile crabs dipped from 581 million to 111 million, according to survey results released last week.

DNR officials said the drop was caused by extremely low reproduction combined with a high mortality of last year’s near-record crab population. Stricter regulations put in place five years ago continue to help the population, officials said.

The mortality rate may have been caused by a large influx of red drum fish, which prey on young crabs.

Virginia’s recreational anglers last year caught 2.5 million red drum fish, about 40 times the 61,330 reported in 2011 and nearly 90 times the 28,580 reported in 2010, according to records.

In Maryland the 2012 red drum harvest is estimated to be nearly 300,000 fish compared to less than 3,000 in 2010 and 2011.

“They were everywhere,” St. Mary’s waterman Craig Kelley said of the fish. “They were thick.”

Kelley said other environmental factors were in play last year that made for some tough harvests and probably contributed to the low results in the crab survey.

In addition, young blue crabs prey on each other when densities are high as they were last year, according to DNR.

Crabbing has had a slow start in Maryland since the season opened at the beginning of the month.

“The catch has been very slow in the Potomac, the Patuxent and the upper bay” due to the cold water, Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association, said.

He said he heard reports of some crabbers catching a couple bushels per day off Point Lookout in the last week, and watermen on the bayside off Ocean City are doing well.

“They are catching a few, but it’s not enough to pay expenses” so far this season, Kelley said. “They just ain’t started crawling yet.”

Blue crabs spend winters buried in mud and usually become active in late March or April.

“The bay’s blue crab population varies naturally,” said DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell. “Weather conditions, an increase in predators, or other natural occurrences can affect the crab stock.”

Only five years ago the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery was declared a federal disaster.

Because of the regulations and management practices put in place, that is no longer the case, according to state officials.

“The results of this year’s winter dredge survey are by no means ideal, however, our strong management framework includes a buffer that allows the population to fluctuate within a safe threshold,” John Griffin, DNR secretary, said in a statement.

Griffin was recently tapped to be the new chief of staff for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Joseph Gill, who had served as DNR’s chief council for 14 years, will take over the lead position at the natural resources department.

“In fact, the conservation measures we first put into place in 2008 were designed to allow for the naturally occurring fluctuations crabs are known for and ensure a sustainable seafood industry,” Griffin said.

The survey employs crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March to develop population estimates.

Although the overall number of crabs estimated to be in the bay dropped, the number of spawning-age females increased by 52 percent from the previous year to 147 million.

DNR attributed this increase to the current regulations, which restrict the harvesting of females.

Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission will work during the next few weeks to review management practices. The jurisdictions plan to put in place rules that would reduce the harvest of female crabs by about 10 percent this year compared to 2012.

“Reducing [the catch of female crabs] is doing nothing but putting a financial hardship on watermen,” Zinn said.

He said that blue crab populations are able to recover quickly as the weather allows it.

Zinn also was concerned about the increased licensing fees across the board that will be charged to commercial crabbers.

He said the fee on the Limited Crab Catcher license in particular could cause a lot of crabbers to not renew their licenses.

The drop in the number of crabs is likely the result of weather, pollution, habitat loss and increased predation, according to the DNR.

“Reducing pollution, including better managing stormwater runoff before it gets into rivers and streams, will improve water quality, contribute to bay grass revival, and improve habitat for crabs,” William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement.

“Everyone who values healthy and abundant crabs and fish, and the clean water they need to thrive, should be concerned. To those who call the stormwater fee [being imposed in 10 counties, but not St. Mary’s] a rain tax, I would encourage them to think about it as a crab tax,” Baker said.

To help support the industry, last year DNR launched the True Blue labeling and promotion program to let people know whether seafood dishes use meat from Maryland blue crabs or less expensive crab meat from abroad.

jyeatman@somdnews.com