- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Fisheries analysts are worried about the decline of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population at the start of the commercial crabbing season.

The population has fluctuated before, but this time is showing no signs of rebounding from its near-historic low. The season begins today.

“The bottom line is that we’re not seeing the recovery in the spawning stock and population that we had hoped for,” said Rom Lipcius, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science researcher who studies the blue crab.

Ongoing concerns include small numbers of female crabs, the loss of underwater grasses as crab habitat and an annual harvest rate that was too high four years in a row before falling below the recommended threshold in 2005.

If that harvest rate stays stable, scientists say, the crab population should rebound. The question is whether the Bay’s water quality, lack of female crabs and the loss of eelgrass and other crab habitat will stymie the recovery.

“Everyone’s waiting to see some stability,” said Rob O’Reilly, deputy chief of fisheries management at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The Bay’s crab population was about 800 million in 1990, but only about 345 million last year, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The Bay’s overall crab catch has gone from a recent peak of 120 million pounds in 1993 to 60 million pounds in 2005.

Although there are fewer watermen and smaller catches than in the past, the harvest landed $20.5 million at Virginia docksides in 2005, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Each female blue crab produces 2 million larvae on average, and the crab population over time has shown that it can swing from historic lows to near-historic highs in a single year. So scientists, watermen and fishing-industry regulators hope that crabs could rebound quickly under the right conditions.

Joe Melzer Jr., who owns Pagan River Dockside Seafood and buys crabs from watermen, said the evidence at the dock is clear that there are fewer crabs over the course of his 15 years in the business. Mr. Melzer said crabs are giving in to several pressures, including the resurgence of other predators, such as striped bass.

“The juvenile crabs don’t stand a chance,” he said. “It’s not just the striped bass; it’s the croaker, the mud toads. And there’s no place for them to hide because all the grass beds have died off. And then we’ve got us guys with the pots. There’s not much chance.”

However, Mr. Melzer said, fewer watermen are setting out crab pots these days. He said the blue crab still has a good chance for a comeback “if we ever get all that grass to come back into the Chesapeake Bay.”

Tommy Minor, a 57-year-old Hampton native and Fox Hill resident, remembers his grandmother driving a car full of children to the Hampton River to crab off the docks. Dropping a basket with a fish head as bait worked wonders, Mr. Minor remembers.

“It was nothing for a carload of kids to go down there, spend 45 minutes and come back with a bushel of crabs,” he said. “We never wanted for crabs. Year after year after year, we crabbed all we wanted; we got all the crabs we needed.”

Mr. Minor said he hasn’t bothered to crab for years because the slim pickings are not worth the effort.

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