- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Watermen and scientists in Maryland are saying this is the worst crab season in recent memory, and are blaming weather patterns, an abundance of predators and even cannibalism.
“It’s definitely an off season,” John “Willy” Dean of Scotland, a crabber who is the president of the St. Mary’s Watermen’s Association, said this week.
He said last year he saw lots of very small crabs as he hauled in his pots, evidence supported by the results of an annual survey conducted by Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“We never caught those crabs. Nobody did,” he said.
He estimates he caught only about one-third of his usual haul of crabs.
“I’m kind of hearing the same thing from all up and down the bay,” Dean said.
He said the only saving grace for watermen is that the market price for crabs has remained relatively high, mainly due to their scarcity.
Bobby Lumpkins, owner of Golden Eye Seafood in Piney Point, said it was likely a combination of odd weather patterns last winter, an overabundance of predators and a disease that decimated this summer’s potential crab harvest.
“I think the weather was as big a factor, if not a bigger factor,” Lumpkins said.
He said he has also heard crabs were dying from Hematodinium, a blood parasite commonly called bitter crab disease, which steals oxygen from crabs’ blood and makes them become weak and eventually die.
Lumpkins, who buys and then resells crabs and other seafood, said he sees watermen bringing in only several bushels of crabs after leaving some 300 crab pots set for two or three days. In the past they would haul in as many as 20 bushels, he said.
“It’s terrible,” Lance Lumpkins, Bobby’s son, said. The younger Lumpkins said he and other watermen are checking their pots less frequently just to save money on fuel.
Brenda Davis, manager for DNR’s Blue Crab Program, said last year’s dredge survey showing 765 million crabs in the Chesapeake Bay was a 20-year high.
But according to this year’s survey from DNR, crab numbers were down even before the crabbing season started. The 2013 survey, conducted last winter, indicated there were only 300 million blue crabs in the bay, a decline of more than 60 percent from last year.
Warm waters last year combined with irregular weather patterns, including Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, helped predators of the blue crab like striped bass and red drum invade the area, scientists and watermen said.
In addition to the abundance of predators, Davis said the high number of crabs led to cannibalism.
“So when you get in that situation, there’s something called density-dependent mortality,” Davis said. “Basically, they’re incredibly cannibalistic, and they eat each other … Last year, there were lots and lots of little crabs. So they’re likely to be eating each other at a fairly high rate.”
Dan Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said the declining crab harvest has severely hurt the seafood industry, even forcing some watermen to leave their boats and find new jobs.
“Just the scarcity of crabs,” Brooks said. “Prices are up significantly.
“But luckily for Maryland watermen, this has not only been a baywide event but a coastwide event,” Brooks said. “One thing that’s kind of strange is that it’s up and down the East Coast. From Florida to Delaware.”
Crab harvest numbers in the bay have been low before, dipping to 254 million in 2001. To protect the species from collapse, both Maryland and Virginia took action in 2008, with each state imposing a 34 percent reduction in the catch of female blue crabs.
Dean and other watermen said they are now counting the days to the start of the oyster season on Oct. 1.
Last winter proved to be a better than average year for harvesting the bivalves, and those who depend on the water for a living are hoping the same will hold true this year.
Robbie Feinberg of the Capital News Service contributed to this report.