Crabbers could face stricter harvest limits this fall because of declining populations in the Chesapeake Bay, particularly of female blue crabs.
The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report makes several recommendations to minimize the risks to crab populations, including establishing sanctuaries, improving reporting and reducing the harvest.
The quickest and easiest way to protect the crab population is through managing the harvest, because many different factors have contributed to the decline of the blue crab population, said Joe Grist, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, the committee that developed the report.
“It’s hard to say exactly why” the population of blue crabs has dropped, said Andrew Turner, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee. “It’s a multitude of reasons.”
“In the last year, we have seen a variety of issues that affect the fisheries,” Grist said.
“This was not solely caused by fishermen,” Grist said. “There is a bigger thing here.”
That includes an increase in the populations of predators of blue crabs. In the last two years, there has been a large increase in the population of red drum, which prey on blue crabs, in addition to the threats from blue catfish and striped bass.
Grist said sea grasses are at an all-time low since the 1980s, which threatens the younger populations of blue crabs.
“If you don’t have sea grasses, you don’t have juvenile habitats for crabs,” Grist said.
Since there are many contributing and long-term factors to the decline of the blue crabs in the bay, the best way to manage the population this year is to manage crabbing, and the only way fisheries can directly manage the issue is through regulating fishing practices.
The 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report is based on data collected in a cooperative effort among Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, according to a statement from the Chesapeake Bay Program. The three jurisdictions work closely together, Grist said, and Virginia is enforcing a 10 percent reduction in the crab harvest, which began July 5.
The report focuses on the populations of female crabs because they lay eggs, but overall, the blue crab population has declined, Grist said. Since last year, there has been a 53 percent decline in spawning-age female blue crabs, Grist said.
But the good news is that last year the juvenile population of crabs increased by 78 percent. This generation of crabs will be next year’s spawners, Grist said.
Any possible reduction the harvest limits in Maryland most likely would not be enforced until the fall and could be followed through in the spring, said Brenda Davis, blue crab program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
This is because right now, Virginia has the bulk of the female crab fishery. In the fall, the female crabs will move to Maryland, Davis said.
Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert Watermen’s Association, said the harvest this year is slow. Zinn said concerns have been raised about juvenile and female populations, and the watermen are complying with regulations to protect those populations in particular.
“Overall, it’s a bit better than last year, but it’s still been a slow start,” Zinn said.
Although there are difficulties, Zinn said there has been a good harvest of large male crabs, which have been getting a good price at market.