VMRC: Despite signs of blue crab recovery, catch restrictions to continue
MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Following a substantial recovery in Chesapeake Bay blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) numbers following the implementation of catch restrictions last year, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted yesterday to continue those restrictions it believes contributed the population’s resurgence.
According to the annual Bay-wide Winter Dredge Survey that began in 1990, the estimated blue crab population in the Chesapeake plummeted from 852 million in 1993 to 254 million in 2001. While the crab’s numbers increased from 283 million in 2008 to 418 million this year — the size of the Bay’s crab population remains below the average over the entire period that the Winter Dredge Survey has been conducted.
The overall average annual population (1990-2009) is 449 million crabs. A big drop in blue crab numbers occurred between 1997 and 1998 — from 680 million in 1998 to 353 million in 1998. The average annual crab population prior to the 1997-1998 drop was 644 million. Since then, the average annual crab population has been 319 million.
More important than the increase in overall crab numbers is the increase in the number of spawning-age (more than 1 year old) crabs. The number dropped from 457 million in 1991 to 86 million in 1999. There were 120 million spawning-age crabs in the Bay in 2008, but the number increased to 223 million this year — the highest number since 1993. (Some news reports incorrectly said the overall numbers are the highest since 1993.) The increase in reproductive-age crabs, particularly females, is attributed by the VMRC to the canceling of a winter-dredge season for hibernating crabs last year. The winter dredging season is believed to take an especially heavy toll on pregnant females. The number of reproductively mature females largely controls population growth potential.
Last month, Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley attributed the increase in crab numbers overall to the crabbing restrictions implemented last year. In addition to the canceling of the winter dredge season, restrictions retained from last year include a 15 percent reduction in commercial crab pots allowed (the plan was to increase the reduction to 30 percent), activating no-harvest breeding sanctuaries earlier in the year, and shortening the blue crab season — the shortened season is nevertheless longer than allowed last year.
The commission ended a ban on the sale of recreational crab licenses implemented last year — but the recreational season will still be shorter than in the past.
Besides overfishing, the blue crab population has been plagued by pollution, habitat destruction and other problems. Some watermen present at the VMRC meeting expressed frustration that the bulk of the effort to save the Chesapeake Bay blue crab seemed to fall on their shoulders. An attorney for one waterman’s association angered commission members by alleging that their efforts were politically rather than scientifically motivated. Anger wasn’t solely directed at the commission, however. Two watermen reportedly stepped outside for some near fisticuffs during the meeting. Many of the watermen, however, recognize the need for restrictions.
— David M. Lawrence
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