- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

ANNAPOLIS (AP) | The female blue crab harvest in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay was down by about a third last year, a drop that coincided with efforts to restrict the catch to rebuild the population of the commercially important seafood species, state officials said Friday.

State lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia moved to cut the catch of female crabs by 34 percent, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported the female harvest was down between 28 percent and 36 percent, based largely on analyses of independent surveys. Virginia reported in January that preliminary figures show it has reduced its harvest of female blue crabs 37 percent.

Maryland’s natural resources agency said independent surveys were used for its estimate because of discrepancies in harvest reports from watermen and its own surveys.

Watermen appear to have over-reported the crab harvest in response to state action tying allowable catches to harvest history, the department said in a background report issued along with the harvest numbers.

However, the department said it has developed methods to deal with over-reporting and is working on final harvest numbers, adding that the most reliable measure of the health of the blue crab population is the annual winter dredge survey. Results of that survey are expected to be released in April and will be used to guide future management actions, the department said.

Since 1990, dredge samples have been taken at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March, when blue crabs bury themselves in the mud and are stationary, making it easier to estimate the population.

The department said it is also proposing regulations to continue the focus on conserving female crabs; spread restrictions over the entire season and not just the end of the season as was done last year; develop estimates of the recreational blue crab harvest; and address the large number of unused crab licenses that could re-enter the fishery.

The restrictions were instituted last year after warnings by scientists that the population was in danger of irreversible decline. Biologists say the number of adult blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is about 120 million, with about 200 million adult crabs needed to ensure the population is healthy.

The restrictions included bushel limits and an early end to the female crabbing season. Maryland fisheries officials also hope to ensure that no more than 46 percent of the blue crab population is harvested during the season that runs from April to December.

Crab stocks are estimated to have declined 70 percent in the Chesapeake since the early 1990s, due to overfishing and pollution that harms crabs as well as the underwater grasses where they live.

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