Scientists recommend limiting crab harvest in second half of 2017 season

Maryland crabs could be more scarce — and possibly more expensive — in the second half of the summer if state officials heed a call from scientists to limit harvests this fall.

Biologists said Monday they are concerned about a decline in the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population over the past year — and in the number of juvenile crabs, in particular. Their worry comes despite data showing adult female crabs are at their most plentiful in a generation.

A panel of scientific advisers is urging Maryland and Virginia to "maintain a cautious, risk-averse approach" to management of the Chesapeake crab fishery and consider tightening regulations that had been loosened last year.

"This would protect a greater number of juvenile crabs and give them the opportunity to grow old enough to spawn next year, which would produce more crabs in the future," the scientists wrote in summarizing a report the Chesapeake Bay Program released Monday.

The report comes as Maryland officials say they are considering cutting the crab season short by at least a week and a half while also possibly imposing stiffer female harvest quotas. They will release rules for the rest of this year "in the next few days," a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources said.

Word of such possible changes comes as a bit of a surprise to the watermen and environmentalists who closely watch the bay's seminal species. Hopes of a second-straight year of crab population growth seemed confirmed this spring when an annual winter survey showed more she-crabs in the Chesapeake than had ever been counted in its nearly three decades.

Maryland's crab policy became a center of controversy when state Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton fired the longtime manager of the state's crab fishery in February. Watermen and environmentalists said they believed Brenda Davis was let go because she resisted calls to loosen a rule governing the minimum size of crabs that can be caught.

Some watermen hoped her departure signaled rule changes were ahead — ones that would let them harvest more crabs, not fewer.

But a closer look at the survey data showed that despite the strength of the female population, there are half as many young crabs as there were in the banner 2016 season.

Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she is glad the state is considering tighter limits based on the data. While many crab lovers were excited by headlines about record numbers of adult females, other figures were concerning — the 17 percent drop in the overall crab population, and a 54 percent drop in juveniles.

"They become the large adult females in next year's survey," Colden said.

Chesapeake blue crabs are always prone to population swings because they depend heavily on weather and currents to make their way up the bay and survive the winter, and they only live two years, on average. Generations of overfishing helped put the species on the brink of collapsing in the early 2000s.

Since 2008, more cautious rules designed to maintain a healthy number of spawning-age females — and thus a sustainable population — have supported a rebound.

There were 550 million crabs in the bay at the April start of crab season in 2016, 35 percent more than a year earlier and one of the highest counts in two decades. The results prompted Maryland and Virginia to allow watermen to harvest crabs three weeks later into November than the year before.

Watermen sold about 60 million pounds of Chesapeake crabs last year, 20 percent more than the year before.

They expected another strong year in 2017 after a mild winter. Crabs spend the season burrowed in the mud, but many die in excessive cold.

Yet while this winter's survey revealed more than 250 million adult females, achieving a milestone target, the total number of crabs fell to 455 million.

"The highly variable nature of blue crabs was on full display this past year," said Glenn Davis, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, the scientific panel behind the report. He said the results were proof "that managing blue crabs is a continuous challenge."

Both Maryland and Virginia are expected to shorten crab season in light of the data.

A group of watermen who advise the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on fishery policy has weighed two proposals presented by the agency — ending the season 20 days early, on Nov. 10, or ending it 10 days early with tighter restrictions on the number of female crabs caught during November.

Thomas "Bubby" Powley, a Dorchester County waterman who is a member of the panel, called the prospect of a shorter season disappointing.

"I'm not happy with it," he said, but said watermen must accept the rules nonetheless.

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