The Chesapeake Bay crab population is down by 18 percent in 2018 compared to last season after cold weather killed off more than a third of adult crabs.
But the number of juvenile crabs swimming into the bay is up by a third as crabbing season begins.
That means watermen are expecting a slow start to the season, which technically began April 1. But the harvest could get busier in late summer when many of the young crabs have grown big enough to be considered legal catch.
The visa program was overwhelmed with demand this year, leaving Eastern Shore seafood processing plants without their typical work force. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
It is the bay's smallest crab population since 2014 and below the long-term population average going back to 1990. Still, it's considered a "healthy" figure compared to counts of less than 300 million crabs when Chesapeake Bay health was at a nadir into the early 2000s.
"Despite the cold, hard winter, which extended well into the spring, the blue crab population remains healthy, resilient and sustainable," Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said in a statement.
The Chesapeake blue crab population is naturally prone to swings because of strong influences from weather and currents.
Adult crustaceans spend the winter burrowed in the mud for warmth, but if it gets too cold many can die before the next season begins. Juveniles rely on winds and currents to carry them into the Chesapeake as larvae.
U.S. immigration officials will soon approve 15,000 new guest worker visas for seasonal work, including in a Maryland crab industry grappling with a massive labor shortage, Congressman Andy Harris said.
Scientists calculate crab population estimates each year by surveying across the bay over the winter, scooping up mud and counting the crabs hibernating within it.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore said policies designed to protect the population of spawning female crabs, and thereby future generations of crabs, are "paying dividends."
"Despite this winter's cold temperatures, the Bay's blue crab population remains healthy," he said. "While improving water quality and record Bay grass acreage bodes well for the future of this iconic creature, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation encourages fishery managers to continue to use the best science to ensure the health of the population and the recreational and commercial fisheries that depend on it."
Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, called the survey results "mixed" — given the prolonged cold, he said he would have expected more crabs to die. And he called the surge in young crabs "a good indication we're heading in the right direction. He said its important to be patient as recovery of the Chesapeake crab population continues.
"We didn't get where we're at overnight, and you're not going to get back to where we want to be overnight," Brown said.
That's because demand for the temporary worker visas has skyrocketed amid falling unemployment in the United States, and President Donald Trump's administration awarded the visas by a lottery for the first time.