- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — Despite a late burst of blue crabs churned up by tropical storm Isabel, state environmental scientists are predicting the 2003 harvest of Maryland’s signature seafood likely will be the worst in 25 years.

As of late October, Maryland watermen had pulled 16.5 million pounds of blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay. Final numbers for the season that ended last week are expected to total just over 18 million pounds, said Lynn Fegley, fisheries biologist and head of the blue crab program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

If the estimate holds, the harvest would be the worst since 1978, when watermen pulled in 17 million pounds. About 24 million pounds were harvested last year.

Those who make their living processing and selling crabs felt the dearth, especially early in the season, which begins in April.

“We had to call everywhere there was to fill the orders,” said Harvey Linton, who has been running a wholesale and retail crab house in Crisfield for 33 years.

Mr. Linton said he ordered more out-of-state crabs than he usually does — from Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia — to supplement the small crustaceans pulled in by Maryland crabbers.

Maryland’s worst-ever crab harvest, 10 million pounds, was in 1968. The catch stayed low in the 1970s and rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s.

Miss Fegley blamed the poor catch this year partly on the frigid winter and spring. The weather was so cold that it killed some crabs, and the lateness of the chill kept crabs from moving around as much as usual — preventing them from being harvested, she said.

The season effectively began about a month late because of the cold, Miss Fegley said. Those early catches were so low that the state in June gave watermen unprecedented one-time payments of $500 to help them pay their bills.

Moreover, there simply are fewer crabs to harvest in the bay, Miss Fegley said.

A dredge survey that began last week will predict how abundant crabs are and will help state officials anticipate the harvest next year.

“Between the stock size and the weather, this is what we got,” Miss Fegley said of the low harvest.

In mid-September, crab harvests picked up dramatically, watermen and processors said. Many attribute the increase to Isabel, which they say plowed up crabs that had moved into deep waters.

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