The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has increased nearly 60% over the last year, according to the annual Blue Crab Advisory Report, which was developed by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee and released by the Chesapeake Bay Program on July 2.
The report is based on 2019 winter dredge survey results.
While the total abundance of both male and female crabs of all ages increased from 372 million in 2018 to 594 million in 2019, the committee recommends “jurisdictions should maintain a cautious, risk-averse approach in the 2019 season.”
“I just got off the water today. I crabbed. I got only one good bushel,” said Bill Kilinski, president of the Waterman’s Association of Charles County. “Not doing a lot here.”
Kilinski crabs for a living in the summer, and fishes and dredges oysters in the winter.
“I like to take orders [for crabs], but things are so slow right now,” Kilinski said. “In our region, it really is not that good because of the water salinity.”
Kilinski explained that saltwater creatures such as crabs need salt and “when we’ve had this much rain, it’s not good for them, especially in upper rivers.”
On Wednesday, Kilinski said he crabbed on the Wicomico River where the water is relatively fresh.
“Every time people hear crabbing is up, they think automatically that is going to be a load of crabs to start with,” Maryland Watermen’s Association President Robert T. Brown said.
Brown, who is a past president of the local watermen’s association in St. Mary’s County, used to also crab in his home county. Now he sets pound nets for rockfish on the Potomac River in the St. Clement’s Island and Breton Bay areas, and fishes for catfish in the upper Potomac River.
He also gathers oysters in the cooler months and has an aquaculture business.
“Crabs have picked up in the lower Potomac this last week and also picked up in the Chesapeake Bay, up in the Chesapeake Beach area,” Brown said.
Brown qualified that while the population of crabs is up, those that were surveyed were juveniles.
“A few will be big enough this fall, and some won’t be big enough until next spring,” Brown explained.
Brown said the report’s findings included an overall look at the population of crabs.
He said since July 4, crabs have picked up in many areas of the bay, but concurred with Kilinski that some of the upper areas are still behind and crabbing is low because of the fresh water where the salinity is not as high as it usually is this time of year.
Brown does not attribute the recent increase in the bay’s crab population to nearly a decade and a half of numerous efforts and regulations imposed by the state to preserve the blue crab population, especially the females, which can lay up to 2 million eggs.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources bases the number of how many female crabs watermen can catch in the following season on the number of female crabs they find during their annual dredge survey in the winter.
The survey provides data used in the management of the blue crab species and includes an estimate of the number of crabs wintering in the bay and the number of young crabs entering the population each year.
It also provides an estimated number of females that could spawn within the year. The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee bases its population report on the survey’s data.
“Even with all the restrictions that are on us, that is very minute. The main thing is Mother Nature,” Brown said. “Time was right. They had a good spawn. We also didn’t have a real hard winter.”
“It’s no one thing that controls crabs,” Brown added.
Brown said it is a number of things, including a good “spawn out” and easterly winds in the lower bay.
Overall, Brown said crabbing this season has been slow because of all of the rainwater. He has heard from several watermen concerned about the report of the increase in crabs.
“The watermen are not going to be able to make up for the loss of revenue from this spring and early summer. They missed primarily two of their major holidays — Mother’s Day and Father’s Day,” Brown said, noting Memorial Day and Independence Day are also two peak crab holidays.
Last year’s annual advisory report estimated a 20% decrease in the crab population from 455 million in 2017 to 372 million 2018.
As for this year’s reported increase of crabs in the Chesapeake, Calvert County Watermen’s Association President Dale “Simon” Dean said “absolutely not. I’m not seeing it.”
Based out of Solomons, Dean commercially harvests fish and oysters, which he sells to local dealers.
Dean concurred with Brown that the reported increase has a lot to do with the juvenile crabs that were caught.
“A lot of the public was misinformed about the adult population,” Dean said.
“I hope that down the road it will increase. I’m optimistic to say it’s coming,” Dean added. “I’m hoping. I’m hoping.”