The ups and downs of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population are to be expected, but a 38 percent year-over-year increase is a clear indication that the regulations imposed are doing what they’re supposed to do.
The annual winter dredge survey is a key indicator of how the bay’s crab population is doing. Perhaps the most important aspect of this year’s report—and this is especially good news as Mother’s Day approaches—is that spawning-age female crabs, known fondly in the Chesapeake region as sooks, have emerged from depleted status, showing an increase from 69 million a year ago to 101 million this year, a significant and welcome 46 percent increase.
Though the numbers remain at less than half of the healthy-stock target of 215 million, the escalation is a big step in the right direction and shows momentum that needs to be maintained. Existing regulations limiting the harvest of female crabs will be in place until July 4, and will likely be extended by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
Such regulations are controversial because of the burden they place on watermen who are already struggling to make a living. But the rules are designed to result in a 10 percent harvest reduction, which seems a small price to pay to ensure robust harvests and improved livelihoods for watermen and others associated with the industry in the years to come.
The report is also encouraging for the overall bay crab population, which rose from 297 million crabs a year ago to 411 million this year—the 11th-highest total in the past 25 years.
That bodes well for the coming crab season: A better harvest means more crabs for watermen (and recreational crabbers) to catch, as well as bigger crabs and lower prices for consumers.
Still, all good news about the creatures that come out of the Chesapeake Bay is tempered by the fact that the numbers remain low by historic standards. That means not only that there is much work left to be done, but also that any letup in the pursuit of a healthier bay can tilt the fragile balance in the wrong direction.
The best strategy remains the continued cooperation among the bay watershed states in the implementation of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. The bottom line is that saving the bay depends on improving its water quality and reducing the nutrient pollution from farms, water treatment plants, residential neighborhoods and commercial developments. That applies to areas bordering the bay as well as far-flung communities along its tributaries.
So, for Mother’s Day this year, consider doing something that will make life better for Chesapeake Bay sooks, whose offspring might someday show up at a crab feast near you.