REEDVILLE—Stocks of blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay are up from last year by an estimated 60 percent, the best it’s been in six years, according to a group of experts from state and federal agencies and academic institutions.
“The winter dredge survey results indicate a strong year ahead for blue crab,” said Sean Corson, acting director, NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, who chairs the team of regional scientists tasked with keeping Chesapeake Bay fisheries sustainable.
And while that’s good news for watermen, there are fewer of them actually out fishing for crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
“Harvest is dependent on more than effort [to catch the crab]. It’s also dependent on the economic part of the market,” said Rob O’Reilly, director of Virginia’s fisheries. “We have at least 200 individuals who could crab who don’t. We have probably 100 who buy licenses who don’t crab in Virginia.”
Part the problem is the disappearing processing houses around the Chesapeake Bay, which have struggled as the workforce of crab pickers has aged into retirement. Those workers were replaced by foreign laborers, but the difficulty in obtaining foreign worker H2B licenses has left some crab houses without enough pickers.
So while harvests of blue crabs also fluctuate, O’Reilly said, those numbers do not reflect the number of crabs in the Bay. And making comparisons of recent blue crab harvests to those of decades ago doesn’t necessarily work, because the fisheries have changed due to market constraints.
During the winter dredge survey, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab travel to different sites in the Bay and dig crabs out of hibernation in the mud to estimate their population. Crabs are sexed, measured and weighed. They also count the dead.
They estimate the number of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay by multiplying the density of all crabs by the area of the Bay, adjusting for crabs that died during the winter.
When charted, blue crab stocks resemble the stock market, fluctuating from year to year, leading scientists to keep a careful eye on the all-important females that keep the species going at a rate sustainable enough for harvest. The abundance of spawning-age females increased 30 percent, from 147 million in 2018 to 191 million this year.
Fisheries managers have a target of 215 million for the population of female crabs in the Bay, but consider anything above 70 million an acceptable level. If the population drops below 70 million, they step in to better control the harvest.
During the 2018 blue crab fishing season, 23 percent of all female crabs were harvested, which was the 11th straight year in which the harvest was below the target of 25.5 percent and the threshold of 34 percent, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Both the juvenile and total crab abundance also increased this year.
So how long does a Chesapeake Bay blue crab live? On average, crabs live two to three years, because most are harvested before they might reach a ripe old crab age of six to eight years.