For a third straight year, the number of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped, this time to a record low. And even the scientists who worked on the most recent winter dredge survey, which measures the population, grow wistful when they consider the colorful crustacean so central to Baltimore and Maryland culture.
“It’s something you do in summer. You pick crabs and spend an extended meal with wooden mallets and cold beer and tell jokes and reminisce,” said Thomas Miller, professor of fisheries science at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who has been part of the survey team since its inception 33 years ago. “All of the things that we appreciate with family and friends, it happens around a crab feast.”
Carried out jointly by Maryland’s department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, the dredge survey released last month put the estimate for the Bay’s prized critter at 227 million—the lowest in the survey’s history. The population has declined for female, male and juvenile crabs, with the number of adult male crabs also at an all-time low since the survey began.
Miller said the new information from this year’s survey provides evidence that the reproductive potential of the blue crab population has declined. “We don’t really know why,” he said, but offered three possible explanations.
The first is that regulations may have protected females at the expense of males, leaving too few to inseminate the females. “If [the decline is] related to sex ratio, you might have to start protecting male crabs,” Miller said.
Predation is another important factor, especially by the blue catfish, which can grow up to 5 feet long and over 100 pounds. The invasive fish—introduced decades ago in several Virginia rivers—has a ferocious appetite, and likely consumes a large number of blue crabs, Miller said.
The third factor is changes in the environment, such as reduced water quality and loss of habitat, among a number of other unknowns that can potentially contribute to the declining crab numbers.
Chesapeake Bay is the source of more than one-third of the total blue crab supply in the United States, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which tracks the bay’s signature species. Considered the most valuable commercial fishery in the Bay, the value of blue crab landings in Maryland is estimated to have hovered around $45 million annually for the past decade. Virginia netted close to $28 million from the commercial harvest in 2020 alone.
During the 2020 crabbing season, 41.6 million pounds of blue crabs were harvested from the Bay and its tributaries, according to the 2021 Blue Crab Advisory Report from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC).
The last time the blue crab population dipped to a troubling low was in 2001, with an estimated 254 million crabs across the Bay. It prompted the fisheries managers and regulators across Maryland and Virginia to impose restrictions on commercial harvesting and place a moratorium on crabbing licenses to stabilize the falling blue crab numbers.
For Miller, the falling crab numbers are significant for cultural reasons as well as economic and scientific ones. Three species that live in the Bay, he said, are iconic to Baltimore: oysters, striped bass or rockfish, and blue crabs. “Historically, the fishing community in Baltimore fished for oysters in the winter. They fished for striped bass in the spring, and for crabs in summer and autumn,” he said. “So, culturally, blue crabs have a central place in the identity of Maryland as a state and Baltimore as a city.”
“If you want a July 4 picnic with fresh blue crabs, you’re going to have to think about ordering beforehand,” said Miller, adding that the Bay’s prized crustacean will also be harder to get. “You can expect to see the price of a bushel of crabs be extremely high. People should be prepared for that.”
A ‘Large Economic Impact’ For Local Fisherman
For commercial crab fisherman, whose lives and livelihoods depend on blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay—the largest estuary in the United States—the falling crab stock is worrisome.
Mark Sanford, a crab fisherman on the lower eastern shore of Virginia, is already seeing his catches shrink because of the drop in the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay.
“We are seeing a downward trend in crab population for the last few years now,” he said. “For me, that means fewer catches and less income. It has a large economic impact for me.”
Sanford, who has been fishing crabs in Chesapeake Bay for 37 years, said there is noticeably more predation than there was two decades ago.
“We’ve got a terrible problem with blue catfish in the upper bay. In the lower bay we’ve got these big red drum fish that just devour crabs,” he said. “We’re seeing an explosion of predatory fish species and the crabs are just not making it like they used to.”
But given how sought-after blue crabs are, Sanford said, sometimes the mismatch in supply and demand and the subsequent higher prices for blue crabs still made it worthwhile for him to continue fishing for them, though inflation makes margins thinner. “This year I’m being paid more for fewer crabs. But the spike in price for gas and bait means I’ll be making less money,” he said.
This year’s overall catch could be down by 50 percent compared to last year, said J.C. Hudgins, a veteran fisherman and president of the Virginia Watermen Association. “Every crabber on the Bay has a limit on how many crabs they can catch and nobody has come even close to that limit. That’s why the exploitation rate is down so low, you know, because they haven’t caught that many crabs.”
Hudgins said he decided not to fish for crabs this season because he doesn’t see it to be financially viable.
Environmental factors are definitely impacting the numbers, Hudgins said, counting climate change, the acidification and low oxygen levels of the water and fewer grasses in the Bay among the stressors.
Crab larvae are “very fragile” creatures that leave the Chesapeake Bay for the Atlantic Ocean to mature during the summer months, Hudgins said. In the fall, the baby crabs come back into the Bay, where their survival is dependent on weather, wind direction and current. “Everything has an impact on their survival,” he said. “So, we will have to see what the scientists say and then see what we’re going to do.”
Since the survey results came out in May, various advisory and fishery management bodies in Virginia and Maryland have held meetings to review survey results and discuss possible actions, including imposing new limits on crab harvesting.
Patrick Geer, chief of the Fisheries Management Division of the Virginia Marine Resources Division, said his agency would work with the Maryland and Potomac River Fisheries Commission on appropriate management actions, which will likely be finalized by the end of June.
Geer recalled that in 2001, when the crab population dropped drastically, regulators imposed up to a 38 percent reduction in harvest numbers and put in place measures like reducing the number of available licenses, eliminating certain sections of the fishery and cutting down the number of days allowed for harvesting.
“I don’t think we’re at that point yet. But there are a lot of tools we can consider to reduce fishing pressure,” Geer said. “The idea behind all this is to allow more crabs to escape so that they are available to reproduce.”
Fisheries management agencies should be a little more conservative to ensure that sufficient numbers of young crabs survive, said Miller. The scientific community will also have to analyze the data, he said, to ascertain what has really changed so that it can provide better guidance to fisheries-management agencies.
Many of us have lost the connection that food comes from the natural ecosystems around us, noted Miller, adding that what we do to the environment affects the reliability, the price and the quality of our food.
“Sadly, because there are fewer crabs, every bite is going to taste a bit sweeter because it will be more expensive,” Miller said. “You’re going to have to savor every bite this summer.”
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