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Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population is doing well heading into the Fourth of July, report says

Amid a slow start to the crabbing season in the northern Chesapeake Bay, a report released Tuesday said the blue crab population is in good shape and recommended that no changes be made to crabbing rules.

A winter survey showed the blue crab population rebounding to the highest levels since 2012. It reported a 60 percent increase in the overall population, led by high numbers of juvenile crabs.

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But in the upper bay around Baltimore, crabs have been somewhat scarce. Heavy rainfall last summer sent many crabs farther south to hibernate in search of optimal salinity levels, said Allison Colden, a Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Now, Colden said, things are picking up, particularly in the lower Eastern Shore, signaling crabs are likely headed up the bay.

Statewide, that’s good news for Maryland crab lovers looking forward to a Fourth of July crab feast, she said.

Bob Shorb, a crab sorter, sifts through bushels of crabs at Sea Pride Crab House in West Baltimore.
Bob Shorb, a crab sorter, sifts through bushels of crabs at Sea Pride Crab House in West Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Tuesday’s Blue Crab Advisory Report assessing the population came from the Chesapeake Bay Program, the regional partnership that directs the Bay cleanup.

Blair Baltus, a longtime waterman who crabs in the upper bay, didn’t rush to fix the motor on his boat this season to start crabbing. In fact, he just started a few days ago.

“For one thing, there wasn't any crabs,” he said.

His godson, who crabs down near the Little Choptank River, has been catching more than 40 bushels a day, while crabbers up north have been crabbing 400 to 500 pots just to reach three bushels.

But Baltus is optimistic that, barring heavy rainfall, crab hauls are about to pick up in his area.

“It’s not going to be any banner year, but we’re going to survive,” he said.

Ronald Warren, owner of the Sea Pride Crab House in West Baltimore, said he’s also experienced a slow start to the summer. Early on, most of his crabs came from Louisiana and the Carolinas, but as the season kicks into high gear, more and more are coming from Maryland.

“Right now the supply doesn’t match the demand. Therefore, the prices are going to be a little higher than usual,” he said.

Prices at his crab house range from $20 to $55 a dozen this season, a bit higher than last year, he said.

He remembers making signs advertising three dozen crabs for just $5 when he started in the late 1970s.

“Those days are gone,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford them anymore.”

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Maryland and Virginia both allowed for modest crabbing increases early this season. Proceeding with caution is smart, said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

In addition to the high rainfall totals from last year, there’s also a large number of blue catfish, an invasive species that feeds on the blue crab, he said.

Plus, juvenile crabs, a burgeoning group that led the winter survey, won’t be market-ready until later this season, or even next season. Many won’t even make it to adulthood as a result of predators like rockfish, which feast on soft crabs that have recently shed their shells.

“While the Bay’s crab population can fluctuate, this year’s results are a demonstration that the risk-averse, scientific management programs in place are working,”  Lisa Feldt, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president, wrote in a statement.

Continuing to implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, which sets pollution reduction goals, will help keep the crab population healthy, she added.

Heading into Independence Day, Baltus said he’s waiting to see what becomes of the season.

“Chasing crabs is like playing Russian roulette sometimes,” he said.

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