Annual Report Finds Blue Crab Stock Healthy and Growing

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By Linda Cicoira — The Chesapeake Bay is crabby from the blues.

According to results of the 2019 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey, the Bay’s blue crab stock remains healthy and able to support quality commercial and recreational harvests.

The number of potential female spawning crabs is up by 29% compared to the previous year. The number of juvenile crabs also increased. They measure 2.4 inches or less in width, and their numbers increased by 93 percent from last year to 323 million. The 594 million crabs from all categories caused the 2019 survey to rank eighth for the three decades the survey has been conducted.

“Our marine resources are a treasure and the blue crab is an important Virginia species that demands responsible management,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a prepared announcement. “I trust our managers and scientists will utilize the best information possible, along with the input of stakeholders, to ensure the continued success and longevity of this fishery.”

The number of female crabs, expected to spawn in late May or by mid-summer, was estimated at 190 million. The number of spawning-age female crabs averaged 163 million during the last 10 years, as compared to the average of 82 million from 1998 to 2007, an era that coincided with several overfishing events, the report stated.

Since 2008, overfishing has not occurred. The 2019 female spawning stock is the fifth largest since the survey began and remains well above the minimum safe threshold of 70 million crabs. The juvenile crabs will grow large enough for harvest by late summer and represent the major contributor to next year’s reproductive effort.

The 2018 bay-wide commercial harvest increased by 2% compared to 2017 to 55.2 million pounds. Harvest has been relatively stable in the past four years and was 50% above the 30-year lows observed in 2013 and 2014. The 2018 Virginia commercial crab harvest was 21.2 million pounds, comparable to the ten-year average (2009 to 2018) of 22.3 million pounds.

“It’s no surprise that cleaner waters, more seagrass and oyster reef habitat, and responsible catch limits have produced an upward trend in blue crab abundance,” said Matthew Strickler, the state’s secretary of natural resources. “This shows the kind of direct economic benefits that cleaner water and science-based management have for Virginians, and it is why Gov. Northam’s new Chesapeake Bay Blueprint to achieve our clean water goals by 2025 is so important.”

“Although these abundance estimates underscore a stable blue crab resource, we still must exercise caution as we manage this iconic resource,” said VMRC Chairman Steven G. Bowman. “While no reductions appear necessary, we must realize that to adopt overly liberal harvest measures would be irresponsible. I look forward to input from our staff, harvesters, and the public as we craft a balanced plan that ensures continued stability in what has been in the past a somewhat fragile resource.”

The recent survey estimates a total adult male and adult female crab at 271 million. This estimate is 31 percent higher than in 2018 and remains well above the 30-year average of 199 million crabs.

The December to March dredge survey is the primary census of the Bay’s blue crab standing stock. Since the winter of 1989/1990, the survey has been conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The survey employs crab dredges that sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites. Sampling when blue crabs are usually buried in the sediment and stationary allows scientists to develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, a subcommittee of the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is reviewing the recent survey results and will release its full analysis in a report this summer.

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