Crab population has rebounded, state says

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Jesse Lowers, of Lowers Crab Shack in Essex, shows a large and small Maryland blue crab that he received today in a small shipment. Jesse said the temperatures are still a bit cold for a good harvest, but the summer holds great promise.

Rebounding from near-collapse four years ago, the Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs are more plentiful than they've been in nearly two decades, with a record crop of young, Maryland officials announced Thursday.

The annual winter survey of Maryland and Virginia waters found an estimated 764 million crabs baywide — two-thirds more than last year and the highest since 1993, officials said. The number of juvenile crabs nearly tripled to 587 million, the most seen since the survey began 22 years ago.

That should mean there'll be plenty of the crustaceans available this year, especially in late summer. But it's impossible to tell if they will be any less pricey, because the market is affected by supplies of crabs from other states and countries.

Gov. Martin O'Malley hailed the survey results, calling them further proof that catch restrictions imposed by the two states in 2008 have paid off.

Speaking to reporters at an Annapolis-area crab restaurant, O'Malley said the crabs' rebound from dangerously low levels four years ago proved the merit of "difficult" conservation measures, which were bitterly criticized by watermen who lost income from cutbacks in the mainstay of their livelihood.

Now, the governor said, the survey results are "very good news for watermen, good news for the bay, good news for jobs and good news for our economic recovery."

To encourage Marylanders to patronize restaurants and markets that sell bay crabs rather than imports, state officials plan to launch a "True Blue" marketing campaign by Memorial Day, which identifies places offering crabs caught in the Chesapeake. They hope it will help strengthen demand for locally caught seafood and, by extension, improve watermen's earnings.

Leaders of the state's two commercial fishing groups welcomed news of more crabs in the bay and even had kind words for fisheries regulators and scientists with whom they have clashed in past.

"What this means for us is a better future," said Larry Simns, longtime president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "Hopefully, we'll be able to get some restrictions lifted. But you've got to have a resource, or you don't exist."

Jesse Lowers, a waterman who runs Lowers Crab Shack and Fish Market in Essex, said the survey bodes well for those who sell as well as catch crabs.

"For all of us to keep doing it for a living, we need plenty of crabs," he said.

There is one caveat in all the good news: The survey found that the number of female crabs fell by nearly half, from 190 million to 97 million. Officials said the drop was not unprecedented or particularly worrisome, as the spawning stock was still above the target scientists recommend to maintain the population.

It's unclear why the female crab numbers dropped. Thomas Miller, director of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, said the survey may have missed some females, possibly because last year's storms and the unusually warm winter kept them from slumbering on the bay bottom in the usual places they're found.

Scientists also said they weren't sure why there had been such a surge in juvenile crabs in the past year. Lynn Fegley, deputy fisheries director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, suggested that last summer's storms, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, may have altered currents at the mouth of the bay, pushing more crab larvae back into the Chesapeake from just offshore.

The crab announcement comes just two days after scientists reported that the bay's water quality declined last year, a downturn generally blamed on last year's unfavorable weather, including heavy spring rains and the storms. The "dead zone" where fish and crabs cannot breathe, which forms every summer in the bay's mainstem as a result of nutrient pollution, was one of the largest and longest-lasting ever seen. Underwater grasses, a vital nursery for young crabs, also declined significantly.

Kim Coble, vice president for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cautioned that despite the crabs' rebound, which she credited to science-based regulation of the catch, the crustaceans' population also depends on water quality.

But O'Malley called the jump in the crab population "one of the clearest indicators that the health of the bay is not a hopeless cause."

He pointed to legislation adopted this year aimed at dealing with the bay's long-standing water pollution problems. The General Assembly doubled the so-called flush fee to pay for sewage plant upgrades, required communities to raise funds to control their polluted runoff and set limits on rural development using polluting septic systems.

Miller, the crab scientist, said crabs may not be directly hurt much by pollution, since they can swim away from the oxygen-starved dead zone. They may suffer indirectly, he added, if water quality reduces their habitat or their food supply. With water quality harder to control, limiting fishing pressure becomes a priority, he said.

Catch limits are expected to be largely unchanged for the coming year, Maryland officials said.

Officials estimate last year's crab harvest was 67.3 million pounds combined for Maryland and Virginia, down from more than 80 million pounds in 2010. Watermen say last summer's hurricane and tropical storm effectively cut short their season, which normally runs into November.

Tom O'Connell, the DNR fisheries director, said that despite annual variations, the harvest has been at sustainable levels the past few years. He said there have been some minor adjustments to give watermen more flexibility in when they can catch crabs and possibly make more money for their effort.

In particular, explained Fegley, watermen agreed to lower daily catch limits in spring and fall so they could catch more females in the summer, when dockside prices are higher.

The governor said that for most Marylanders, the most important measure of the bay's health is the availability of crabs for summer feasts.

"We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is an important milestone," O'Malley said.