Marylanders could have an easier time finding — and affording — local crabs this summer, a survey of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population suggests.
There are more than 550 million blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, an increase of more than a third over this time last year and one of the highest counts of the past two decades, according to state officials. They credit favorable weather and past harvest restrictions for a second straight year of strong crab population growth.
"We fully anticipate a robust crab season this year," said Dave Blazer, fisheries survey director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Officials plan to explore whether the increasing numbers should prompt regulators to loosen harvest restrictions or lengthen the crabbing season.
Scientists and conservationists said that while the survey results are encouraging, they don't eliminate concerns about the health of the bay and blue crab reproduction.
"We are in a much better place than we were," said Thomas Miller, director of the state's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. But he said the crab population isn't yet "up to consistent levels of abundance that will support a sustainable fishery into the long term."
Still, members of the seafood industry are optimistic about the season ahead. Several said they have been encouraged based on early hauls since the season opened April 1.
Harvests are usually light until May, but crabbers for Maryland Crabs Delivered caught 40 bushels in two days in the Chincoteague Bay, co-owner Katie Schilpp said. She is hoping for strong harvests in Kent Narrows and the Chester River by next month.
Other crabbers in the lower Chesapeake Bay have seen April harvests at a level they only get about once a decade, said Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association.
"We all looked at that and said, 'Well that's a good start,'" Chance said. "Now upon hearing results of this study, we're that much more hopeful."
A larger supply of Maryland crabs could mean lower prices for consumers.
Crabs are typically at their most expensive this time of year because so many are still hibernating in mud. Last April, Maryland Crabs Delivered sold its first harvests for as much as $275 per bushel for its heaviest male crabs. This month, they are offering them for $195, Schilpp said.
Neal Gaffney, owner of Gaffney's Back Fin in Highlandtown, said thus far he is keeping his prices the same as last year's, from $30 for a dozen small crabs to $110 for a dozen colossals. But if harvests are plentiful and regulators allow crabbers more opportunities to put their crab pots out, that could influence the market, he said.
State Natural Resources officials plan to confer with watermen, conservationists and other stakeholders to consider whether changes to the length of the crabbing season or limits on harvesting female crabs are warranted. Watermen are generally limited in how many female crabs they can harvest, and they're prohibited from harvesting any females late in the season.
Chance said watermen welcome those discussions. They have accepted new restrictions in the past with the understanding that regulations could be loosened if crab populations rebounded, he said.
Scientists, though, said changes should come only after a careful analysis. They say people shouldn't assume the survey numbers mean the crab population can handle a bigger harvest. In 2012, for example, surveys showed a record number of juvenile crabs, but so many of them died it didn't translate into a long-term population boom.
"We have to understand whether this brings the population ... above a threshold which suggests it's no longer overfished," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
In coming weeks, state scientists will continue to analyze the data gathered in the survey.
Researchers who dredged some 1,500 sites in the Maryland and Virginia portions of the bay this winter found the strongest growth in the population of adult male crabs, which more than doubled in the past year to a population of 91 million.
They found the number of female crabs that will be old enough to spawn this year nearly doubled, reaching 194 million. That's below a target of 215 million considered key for a healthy population, but nonetheless encouraging because the number of adult female crabs is considered an important barometer for future population growth.
The population count is the fourth-highest in 20 years. Researchers said a relatively mild winter meant fewer crabs died than in recent seasons when portions of the bay froze over.
The results show a continuing rebound in the crab population. Last year's survey found 38 percent growth over the previous winter, and the 2015 crab season that followed brought a 42 percent increase in the baywide harvest.
"I had a hunch that we were going to have an uptick in the population from what I saw at the end of last year and the fact that we had a decent winter," said Richard Young, co-owner of Coveside Crabs in Dundalk. While crabs typically become scarce by October, last season they were plentiful until the season's end in mid-December, he said.
Even if the population growth translates to a larger harvest in Maryland, imported crabs still dominate the local crab economy, said Lee Carrion, who owns Coveside Crabs along with Young.
If crabs from North Carolina and Louisiana are also plentiful, that could force Maryland crabbers to lower their prices, too.
"Even if we have an excellent season, we're still going to have less than they can bring in from out of state," Carrion said.