Blue crab population numbers have grown for the second straight year, especially for female crabs, but their numbers are still below target levels, a Chesapeake Bay Program report released Thursday said.
The report also found that crabs were not being overfished, with about 50 million pounds taken last year over 2014's 35.2 million pounds — the lowest harvest in 25 years.
It urged regulators to stay the course and maintain crab management regulations in order to maintain the progress.
Female crabs rebounded from a depleted 68 million in 2014 to 194 million at the beginning of the 2016 crabbing season, and juvenile crabs, those that will grow to harvestable size by the fall and grow into large crabs by next season, were also holding steady.
While showing signs of a recovery, those numbers are still below the target goal of 215 million female crabs.
"The blue crab population is at a healthy level," said Glenn Davis, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee. "Having both juvenile and adult components at or above the long-term average has only happened once since 1994."
He was encouraged to see the female crab count back up.
"But that also serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with this animal," he said.
That's why the committee encourages the three regulatory jurisdictions — Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission — "maintain current management strategies that are responsive to population status," and look to preserve female populations for 2017.
Bill Scerbo, crabbing out of Shady Side, has seen crab numbers pick up a bit.
"Put it this way: You haven't had to work as hard to catch crabs this year," he said. "Overall, I think we'll probably do a little better than last year."
In recent days he's seeing a lot of sponge crabs (egg-laden females) and larger males. He attributes the boost in crabs not only to regulating the female harvest, but to a mild winter.
"We didn't need a science report to know there would probably be more crabs coming out of a mild winter. That is just common knowledge," he said. "Maybe we will be fortunate and have another mild winter and we'll be back to square one."
Limits on female crab harvests have been in effect for the past few years.
The 2016 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report is part of the work of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Sustainable Fisheries Goal, a part of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement. It drew conclusions through the study of the annual winter crab dredge and analysis of harvest statistics.
The Stock Assessment Committee that produced the report is made up of scientists and representatives of state and federal governments and academic institutions.
The committee also recommended the three jurisdictions improve their information gathering from commercial and recreational crabbers. Commercial harvest tracking is already part of everyday life for those crabbers, but recreational harvest numbers are harder to gather.
In the long term, the committee supports the possibility of a bay-wide framework to control crab harvests through allocations, or at least discussions about the idea.
By the numbers:
•Total crabs increased from 411 million last year to 553 million at the beginning of the season.
•Female crabs increased from 101 million last year to 194 million.
•The female crab harvest in 2015 was about 15 percent of the population, below the target of 25 percent to 34 percent.
•Juvenile crab counts held steady with an estimated 271 million counted this year and 269 million last year.
Read the report at http://www.chesapeakebay.net/documents/CBSAC_2016_Report_6-30-16_FINAL.pdf