The Chickahominy Report

News about Earth, Atmosphere, Water, and Life

VMRC: Despite signs of blue crab recovery, catch restrictions to continue

Chesapeake Bay blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) caught in the James River below Hopewell, Va.

Chesa­peake Bay blue crab (Call­inectes sapidus) caught in the James Riv­er below Hopewell, Va. (Copy­right © 2009 David M. Lawrence)

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.

Blue crab population trends, 1990-2009. (Data from Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Chesapeake Bay Program)

Blue crab pop­u­la­tion trends, 1990–2009. (Data from Mary­land Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources and Chesa­peake Bay Pro­gram)

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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1 Comment

  1. I’d like to say that I found your arti­cle extreme­ly use­ful for a last-minute school project, and if those peo­ple at Chesa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion don’t respond, may I have an e‑mail inter­view with you for the project?