- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Chesapeake Bay has spawned the most blue crabs in nearly 20 years, according to results of a study released Thursday by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Some 764 million blue crabs were found in the Bay this winter, an increase of 66 percent over last year’s population numbers and the highest since 1993. Those figures also reflected the highest number of “juvenile crabs”ever recorded in the Bay - a good sign going forward.

“Just a few short years ago, the future did not look bright for our blue crab population,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said. “Our female crabs were being overfished, and our fishery was at risk of complete collapse.”

The results were part of an annual survey conducted by the department and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science since 1990 to make sure the blue crab population does not get so low that it runs the risk of being overfished.

While high blue crab counts mean the creatures themselves are thriving, some say it could also have significant effects on the state’s fishing industry.

“The replenishment and return of the blue crab is good news for Maryland’s watermen who have been affected by shrinking crab harvests,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat.

The Department of Natural Resources annually makes “estimates of abundance” for each blue crab category measured - juvenile crabs, mature female crabs and adult male crabs - to try to predict how they will reproduce over the ensuing year.

While the overall number of blue crabs and the number of juvenile blue crabs are on the rise, the survey found that the number of mature female crabs that could reproduce had decreased from 190 million to 97 million within the past year. The department isn’t concerned about that change, given this year’s higher overall numbers and the number of juveniles that could reproduce in the future.

“We expect this type of variation in populations from year to year,” said Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin. “While last year’s severe storms and the warm winter may have had an impact, we are optimistic that our record recruitment will bode well for next year’s adults, both male and female.”

Back in 2008, the states of Maryland and Virginia, along with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, collaborated to try to reduce the “harvest pressure” on blue crabs by 34 percent. Maryland currently has regulations, such as daily catch limits and certain times when the Bay is closed to fishing, to ensure enough crabs stay in the Bay. However, the number of crabs caught by fishermen last year and the total number of crabs still found in the water were both record highs.

“The preliminary Bay-wide harvest for 2011 is estimated to be 67.3 million pounds,” said Natural Resources Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell. “A robust industry can co-exist with regulations designed to rebuild a self-sustaining, healthy blue crab population.”