The Chesapeake Bay's crab population has rebounded from last year's perilously low level, state officials reported Monday, meaning there could be more of the iconic crustaceans to feast on this summer — though at what price is anyone's guess.
Despite a frigid winter that killed nearly one in five crabs baywide, a recently completed survey by Maryland and Virginia found their abundance has jumped 38 percent this year, to an estimate of more than 410 million. Crucially, the number of female crabs old enough to reproduce, which had dipped into the danger zone last year, has climbed 47 percent, according to the annual survey.
State fisheries officials attributed the recovery largely to favorable conditions last spring and summer near the mouth of the bay, which spurred an increase for the second straight year in the crop of young crabs spawned. But officials also credited tighter catch limits on female and juvenile crabs with keeping more in the water to grow and reproduce. And they cautioned that the female crab tally in particular remains well below what biologists believe is a healthy level.
"While the population has responded positively, we're still not at the point we want to be," said Thomas J. O'Connell, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Virginia's marine resources commissioner, John M.R. Bull, agreed, saying "we are not out of the woods."
Maryland and Virginia officials said they plan to consult with their watermen and with each other before deciding what, if any, changes to make in catch regulations for this crab season, which began April 1.
Even if limits aren't changed, the survey results suggest crabbers should see at least a modest boost in their catch, weather permitting. And that could mean more bay crabs for summer feasts and on the menus of Maryland restaurants.
"This could be a much better year than last year," predicted Stephen Vilnit, fisheries marketing chief for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Last year, commercial and recreational crabbers took an estimated 35.3 million pounds' worth baywide, down from 37 million pounds the year before. With catch restrictions put in place last year, the harvest of female crabs was well below the threshold scientists had recommended, officials said.
Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he's hoping to see some easing of those restrictions, though he acknowledged that it's too soon to relax them much.
"You can't just turn it wide open because you're heading in the right direction," Brown said. But he added that commercial crabbers "need some relief," as their livelihoods have suffered in recent years.
Bitter cold killed off perhaps 28 percent of the crabs slumbering in Maryland's portion of the bay this year, according to Lynn W. Fegley, deputy fisheries director. Similarly harsh winter weather the year before was largely blamed for the slump in crab numbers then.
But the winter kill this year was more than offset by a 35 percent increase in juvenile crabs, officials said. The estimated tally now of little crustaceans — 269 million — is more than double the record low found by surveyors two years ago.
The die-off was less severe in warmer Virginia waters, officials said. Many of the young crabs spawned there last year should move up the bay and grow to legally catchable size by mid- to late summer, augmenting the local catch.
State fisheries regulators have focused their efforts on shoring up spawning-age female crabs, as they produce the young that can grow to adulthood the following year. The survey estimated their number this year at 101 million. While much improved from last year, it remains well below the 215 million level scientists consider sustainable in the face of weather-driven ups and downs.
"It obviously isn't a strong recovery yet," said Thomas Miller, a crab researcher with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
He urged fisheries officials to maintain current catch restrictions, predicting that they'll yield further gains, similar to a dramatic rebound seen after another round of harvest limits imposed during a downturn in 2008.
"This low level of abundance ... it's not good for anyone," Miller said. "It's not good for the crabs. It's not good for the crabbers."
William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he could support some modest adjustments in catch rules as long as the states kept limits in place needed to rebuild the crab population.
"I don't think we can undertake major changes, but I think there's plenty of room for fine tuning," he said.
Crabbing season has gotten off to a slow start, said DNR's Vilnit, because chilly spring weather has kept most upper bay crabs slumbering on the bottom. But once water temperatures warm a bit more, he said, locally caught crabs should begin showing up in markets and crab houses.
Bruce Whalen, manager of Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis, said he's looking forward to having more Chesapeake crabs for his customers to pound and pick, rather than the fare he's having to ship in now from the Gulf of Mexico.
"Hopefully it will bring the price down," Whalen said.
Cantler's is charging $85 a dozen now for large Louisiana crabs, he said, up from $65 a dozen last year.
"We're not selling as many," he said. "I think the price is scaring them off a bit."
Vilnit cautioned against expecting a wholesale drop in prices, though. He suggested picked crabmeat, in particular, may remain costly, as restaurants try to counter a recent survey accusing many of using imported rather than local crabmeat in their crab cakes, while claiming on the menu that they serve blue crab.
"I think that will push more people into buying local," which could increase prices, Vilnit said.
An industry executive suggested Maryland consumers' craving for crab is keeping prices high, with some insisting on having crab feasts on Mother's Day and Memorial Day, long before the local harvest picks up.
"The demand seems to get greater and greater," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. "It seems like there's almost insatiable demand for crabs."