By JENNIFER HLAD, News21
COLLEGE PARK (July 16, 2010)—After two years of heavy restrictions on crabbing throughout the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland officials are considering eliminating one restriction watermen say is particularly harmful to their livelihoods.
The state may lift the ban on harvesting female crabs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4 this year, said Brenda Davis, blue crab program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The decision will be made by the department secretary and may come within the next few weeks.
Fisheries scientists have determined that because of increased numbers of crabs in the bay this year, the department may be able to make small adjustments to the 2010 harvest regulations "while still maintaining safe harvest levels," said Darlene Pisani, director of communications for DNR.
It's unlikely any other restrictions on crabbing will be lifted anytime soon, Davis and other state officials said.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the change is one he and other watermen have been seeking. They are not asking the state to ease any other crabbing restrictions - which include limits on the number of crabs watermen can catch each day, where they can harvest and what time of day they can fish.
Female crabs are abundant during that late September-early October period, and crabbers in the lower bay depend on female crabs to make a living, he said.
"That would be a big help to our people," Simns said. "Once you close up for two weeks, the market goes and finds crabs somewhere else. We want to hang on to our markets."
Watermen would still be limited on how many female crabs can be caught each day, and they would not be able to harvest any female crabs after Nov. 10.
Pisani said eliminating the short closure in 2010 would help the crabbing industry maintain its established markets for female crabs.
Maryland and Virginia partnered in 2008 to impose restrictions aimed at cutting the harvest of female blue crabs by a third. The idea was that more female crabs would produce more baby crabs, jump-starting the bay's population of the iconic crustacean.
The restrictions were imposed after a decade in which the crab population in the bay stayed relatively low, without the highs of a few years earlier. From 1998 to 2008, the population averaged 309 million, according to data provided by DNR.
After the restrictions were imposed in 2008, the crab population rebounded almost immediately. The annual winter dredge survey in January 2009 revealed a sharp increase in the population of Chesapeake blue crabs, followed by another big increase in the 2010 dredge survey. The total number of crabs in the bay this winter was estimated at 658 million—its highest level since 1997—according to the 2010 dredge survey.
Eric Johnson, a fisheries ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said it's premature to say whether the population surge will last.
"It's probably too early to claim victory," Johnson said. "The party line ... is two points do not a trend make. That's the right strategy. I don't think we know exactly what's going on."
Tom Miller, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Chesapeake Biological Lab, said many factors impact the crab population each year, including weather and currents.
Female crabs spawn near the mouth of the bay, and the larvae are swept out to sea. The baby crabs must make their way back into the bay, where they often use underwater grasses for shelter. Weather conditions and currents at key times can have a devastating effect in a particular year, Miller said, so it is crucial that there are enough adults left to rebuild the population the following year.
But although pollution and the decline of sea grasses used for shelter also impact crabs, Miller said the speed at which crabs rebounded once the harvest restrictions were enacted strongly suggests the major problem was overharvesting.
"We were catching far too many," he said.
John Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said the state wants to see crab population numbers where they were in the early 1990s, when Maryland and Virginia began doing yearly winter dredge surveys. The surveys showed highs of 828 million in 1991 and 852 million in 1993.
Once the numbers return to that range, Virginia officials want to see the numbers stay there for three years to make sure the spike is not just temporary before making any major changes to harvest restrictions, Bull said.
Virginia and Maryland imposed different restrictions to meet the same goal—keeping more than half of the female crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. And as resources officials have gotten more information, Virginia has made similar minor tweaks to their regulations, Bull said.
The important thing is to not make any changes that could have a major negative impact on the female crab population, he said.
"We don't think the time is now to take our foot off the gas," he said. "We're convinced we're on the right path."
Still, cutting the female crab harvest so significantly in 2008 and keeping those restrictions largely in place is not easy, Bull said.
"It's difficult when you hear a waterman, a crabber, say, `You're cutting back my harvest—my income—by 34 percent,'" Bull said.
"These guys are not rich. It's difficult to convince them that short-term pain is necessary for long-term gain. They're worried about how they're going to feed their kids this year, how they're going to pay their mortgage this year."
This story was produced by the News21 team at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.