With the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population at its lowest ebb in more than 30 years, Maryland and Virginia are moving to curtail harvests in one of the region’s most valuable fisheries.
Fisheries regulators in both states have proposed new catch restrictions, with plans to finalize them by the end of June. In Maryland, tighter limits for both commercial and recreational crabbing would take effect in July and for the first time would limit commercial harvests of male crabs, not just females. New commercial restrictions in Virginia would begin in October and continue until the crabbing season ends Nov. 30.
The specifics vary by state, but the aim is the same: to leave more crabs in the Bay to reproduce and, it is hoped, reverse the worrisome decline of the iconic crustacean.
The annual winter dredge survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Virginia Institute of Marine Science found an estimated 227 million crabs in the Bay and its tributaries this year — fewer than at any time since the survey began in 1990.
Big swings in crab abundance are not uncommon from one year to the next, but scientists say the recent downturn is especially troubling. While the survey’s estimate for female crabs remained within the range believed sufficient to sustain the population, reproduction has been subpar for three years running. The estimate of juvenile crabs hit an all-time low in 2021 and improved only slightly this year to the second lowest abundance.
Rom Lipcius, the VIMS researcher who oversees the Virginia portion of the winter dredge survey, said he hasn’t been this concerned about the Chesapeake crab population since the 1990s, when overfishing thinned the species’ breeding stock.
Today, he said, the prized fishery seems to be caught in a “vicious cycle”: Paltry numbers of young crabs grow up to become meager breeding populations, which produce another small class of young. And then the cycle repeats itself.
Scientists aren’t sure why the numbers are down. It could be one or more of several factors, they say — among them, unfavorable weather at crucial times of the year or the spread of predators such as the invasive blue catfish.
The Baywide harvest in 2021 was 36.3 million pounds, well below the long-term average of 60 million pounds.
Overfishing doesn’t appear to be the culprit, the scientists say. Commercial and recreational boats are harvesting crabs at a rate well below the maximum threshold established a decade ago for adult females. Still, Lipcius said, tougher harvest controls are necessary to give the beleaguered species a better chance to rebound.
He and other scientists are urging regulators to take steps to ease harvest pressure, especially as the current crop of juvenile crabs reaches legally catchable size later this year, so they can survive to reproduce and possibly begin to rebuild the population.
Watermen in both states have reluctantly gone along with the call for harvest restrictions, with few questioning the sobering survey results.
The Maryland DNR’s blue crab industry advisory committee voted June 16 to accept cutbacks from 2021 limits of up to 29% in their daily allowable catch of female crabs, depending on the month and the amount or type of gear they’re licensed to use.
They also agreed to first-ever limits on harvests of male crabs from August through September. The daily cap would range from 4 bushels to 15 or 16 bushels, depending on gear and license type.
The catch restrictions would be greatest in late summer and early fall, when the current crop of juvenile crabs begins to reach legally catchable size.
It's past time.