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Chesapeake Bay’s crab population up 60 percent

The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population has bounced back from dangerously low levels, Maryland officials announced Wednesday, reporting that a newly completed survey of the crustaceans counted more than have been seen in more than a decade.

A jubilant Gov. Martin O'Malley heralded the news from the waterfront deck of a seafood restaurant here, saying the winter crab survey justified the steps he and his counterpart in Virginia took two years ago to clamp down on the commercial catch. Both states shortened the season, slashing watermen's income, and Virginia banned its traditional practice of dredging slumbering female crabs from the bottom during winter.

"This is a great day," O'Malley said, a half-bushel of steamed crabs that had been caught in Dorchester County at his feet. "The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population is actually roaring back, and actually coming back stronger than many would ever have predicted."

Based on the annual winter dredge survey of crabs waiting out cold weather on the bottom of the bay, Maryland and Virginia scientists estimate there are 658 million of them, the greatest abundance since 1997. The population has increased by 60 percent over the previous winter, the scientists said, improving on the 50 percent rebound seen during the first year after catch restrictions were imposed.

"It's the best news in 10 years," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, made up of legislators from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. She said it was "resounding" evidence that managing fisheries based on scientists' advice works.

The survey results are unlikely to lead to major changes to catch restrictions, officials said. And they cautioned that while the survey suggests there are a lot more crabs in the bay this year, it's too soon to tell how big this year's harvest will be — or whether prices will be any lower. The market is affected as much these days by imports of crabs and crabmeat from the Gulf of Mexico and from Asia as it is by local abundance.

But O'Malley pointed out that the crab harvest grew last year even with tighter limits in place because there were more crabs to catch. Officials estimated that 53.7 million pounds of crabs were taken from the bay, 10 percent more than the year before but still below the level that might threaten the long-term sustainability of the population.

"If we had not acted," the governor said, "this population would have been decimated, might have been gone from these waters."

In 2008, with scientists warning that the bay's crabs were in peril, Maryland and Virginia acted jointly to curb the catch of female crabs by 34 percent, so more of them would be left to spawn and rebuild the population.

The move angered both states' watermen, who complained they were being driven from their livelihood and who questioned the scientific evidence of a shortage. Virginia's watermen went to court in a vain attempt to reverse that state's ban on winter dredging of crabs, most of them females.

Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said his members weren't surprised by the survey results because they'd been seeing a lot of young, little crabs. But he conceded that the catch restrictions, particularly on females, appeared to bear fruit.

"The proof's in the pudding," he said. "Mother Nature does a lot of things that we don't know about, but I would say that restricting the harvest of female crabs had to help."

This winter's survey, which samples 1,500 places around the bay for slumbering crabs, found that the number of juveniles had doubled — evidence that protecting the females has paid off, scientists say.

Jack Brooks, co-owner of J.M. Clayton, a crabmeat processing plant in Cambridge, said he hoped the state would now "ease up some" on its catch restrictions, letting watermen harvest more and helping businesses like his. There are only 22 crabmeat plants left in Maryland, less than half the number in business a decade ago, as they have had to contend with low-price imported crabmeat and shortages both of bay crabs and workers to pick them.

But officials cautioned that it would be premature to talk about relaxing catch restrictions and said they wanted to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that wrenched the crab fishery in the 1990s.

"Two years does not necessarily make a trend," said Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin. Tom O'Connell, state fisheries director, said regulators might make minor tweaks to the restrictions, such as reducing the number of days watermen would have to forego catching female crabs in late summer or early fall.

Thomas J. Miller, a fisheries biologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, seconded the state's wariness about easing catch restrictions. While the crab population is up, it is still below where it was in the early 1990s.

"It's too early to let up," Miller said. The crab population "has come up quick, and it can go down quick as well. We shouldn't lose sight of that."

One concern has been that a rebound in the crab population could also trigger a resurgence in fishing them. There are about 5,500 licensed commercial crabbers, but Lynn Fegley, the state's chief crab biologist, noted that the state has bought back about 630 licenses in the past year that hadn't been used in years, and has either frozen or limited the catch of another 550 inactive licenses.

O'Malley said it was heartening to be able to report progress in some area of the bay's restoration. He and other bay state officials have been struggling to accelerate the cleanup of the bay, after acknowledging that progress has been limited to date. Just last week, the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program reported that it had achieved only 45 percent of its goals last year for cleaning up pollution and reviving the bay's depleted fish.

"There are few days when you can actually stand in front of your neighbors and say, ‘You know, this part of the health of the bay is actually getting better,'" O'Malley said. "Today is one of those days."

William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, hailed the news and said it shows the bay can be resilient with a little help. Science-based policies and the cooperation between states have brought crabs back, he said. Now, the states and the federal government need to apply the same approach to cleaning up the bay's pollution, he said.

Pointing to the crabs in the basket, Baker said, "These guys are going to spur the economy. They are the symbol of a bay that is fighting to come back. This shows us, with some good news that we really greatly need, that the bay can be saved."

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