ANNAPOLIS | The Chesapeake Bay’s battered blue crab population has rebounded with a 50 percent increase over last year, an improvement credited to harvest restrictions that need to continue to rebuild the species, Maryland and Virginia officials said Friday.
The population of female adult blue crabs doubled from the previous year, while adult males increased by 50 percent, according to the 2009 winter dredge survey. Environmental officials in both states attribute the turnaround to restrictions on the female crab harvest.
Officials cheered results from this year’s winter dredge survey but cautioned that continued restrictions will be needed to revive a crab population that was 70 percent lower last year than it was in 1993.
“We didn’t get into this situation overnight, and we not going to get out of it overnight, so we need to be mindful of the broader conditions against which we are all working,” said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.
Results of the winter dredge survey were released by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which drag selected areas of the Bay and count the crabs there to come up with an estimate of the overall population.
The survey estimates there are 418 million blue crabs in the Bay, an increase from 280 million crabs in the previous year’s survey. Of the 418 million, 243 million are adults and 175 million are juveniles, whose population did not change measurably.
Lynn Fegley, a biologist in charge of the blue crab team at the Maryland DNR, said the progress was neither “a random event” nor “due to environmental conditions.”
“It really is clearly a response to management - and it is critical that we ensure that these adult females survive to spawn this summer, so that they are able to contribute to a healthy spawning stock down the road,” Miss Fegley said.
Jack Travelstead, fisheries director for the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, said Virginia will be “very inclined to keep in place this year the measures we had in place last year.”
Those included early season closures of the crab pot fishery and closing the winter dredge fishery. Mr. Travelstead said closing the winter dredge fishery likely saved between 15 million and 20 million crabs.
“The indication is we’re clearly on the path of success and it was clearly related to the measures we have in place,” Mr. Travelstead said, noting the commission will be meeting with advisory committees next week and in mid May.
Mr. Travelstead also said harvest restrictions won’t be rolled back, but methods could be changed. He mentioned the early fall closure of the pot season as a possible restriction that could be changed.
“For instance, we’ve advertised bushel limits as a measure that the industry may favor as opposed to an early season closure, but again we’ve not had those meetings with industry yet to determine that,” Mr. Travelstead said.
Both Maryland and Virginia set a target in 2001 that no more than 46 percent of the crabs be harvested, but a smaller crab population and high fishing pressure caused more than 60 percent of the Bay’s crab population to be harvested in 2007, officials say.
Tom O’Connell, director of the Maryland DNR’s fisheries service, said the state will continue to aim for that 46 percent rate. Mr. O’Connell said because of the crab increase, some modest adjustments to the harvest could be made this year. That decision will be made in late May, after officials work with the industry.
Mr. O’Connell also said Maryland will have to recognize that there are people who hold crab licenses who haven’t used them in recent years, and the state will need to take that into consideration, particularly because effects from the national recession could bring more people back into crabbing.
Bill Goldsborough, a senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the survey was encouraging, and he described having an adult population above 200 million adults as “the minimum level for a healthy crab population.”
“But the number of juvenile crabs, on which future abundance depends, is not any better than last year and well below the long-term average,” Mr. Goldsborough said. “While harvest restrictions did reduce the percentage of the crab population that was caught, the harvest rate was still above the target.”