Maryland's blue crab harvest last month was the worst since the state has kept accurate records and all but ensures the worst season on record.
Released yesterday, the figures come a week after a panel of Chesapeake Bay scientists warned that Maryland and Virginia must cut their crab harvests or risk destroying the fishery, and two days before the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee is to consider such recommendations.
"This lends a little more importance, a little more sense of urgency," said Eric Schwaab, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland watermen brought 2.9 million pounds of crabs to the docks of Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries and the coastal bays in August. That's less than half the figure for August of last year and the lowest yield since 1988, the last year for which reliable figures are available. The 2.9 million pound harvest is 59 percent below the average over the past seven years.
The total harvest since the season opened in April was 13 million pounds. Crabbers would have to catch more than twice that between now and the end of the season in November to stay ahead of the previous record low, set in 1999.
"We anticipated weak numbers based on our winter dredge survey, but this is worse than our expectations," Schwaab said.
Virginia's harvest figures for the same period were not available.
Crab harvests have been declining steadily over the last 10 years, leading to fears that the most valuable commercial fishery in the bay is on the verge of collapse. Many have fretted over the state of crabs in the bay, but few have been able to agree on the size of the problem or on what to do about it.
A two-year study by University of Maryland scientists released in 1998 concluded that crabs had been overfished since the 1980s and called for at least a 10 percent reduction in the harvest. Others say the loss of bay grasses has destroyed habitat that provides important nurseries for juvenile crabs and that the restored rockfish population is preying upon young crabs.
Charles Marsh, a 69-year-old Smith Island waterman, suggested the low harvest this year could be related to the unusually wet summer, which has reduced salinity in parts of the bay.
"If you were a crab and you liked salt water and you were swimming up the bay and it started getting fresher, wouldn't you turn around and go the other way?" he asked.
The 27-member panel that released its "statement of consensus" last week found that the breeding population of crabs has declined significantly, as is the overall crab population in the bay. Many crabs are now being caught as soon as they reach legal size, 5 inches across the shell.
In addition, they said, the number of crabbers is at record levels throughout the Chesapeake, while individual catches are declining. The situation could get worse if licensed watermen who aren't crabbing return to work, according to the report, which called for cutbacks "in all sections of the fishery."
Marsh said he believes crabbers would agree to restrictions "if they do it right," but added that he wasn't sure what "right" would be.