Bay's Crab Population

 Blue Crab photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute

 Will crabs be abundant in the Bay this season? The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Winter Dredge Survey, which is an annual count of the Bay's crab population, shows mixed results, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The good news: the number of spawning-aged females increased by 52 percent to 147 million, which is more than twice the ‘healthy-abundance’ threshold of 70 million. The not-so-good news: an overall decline in the Bay-wide population, from 765 million to 300 million, with the number of juvenile crabs dropping from 880 million to 111 million.

“It’s important to keep these results in perspective," says Jack Travelshead, a commissioner with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "Five years ago, this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case. Overfishing is no longer occurring. A good fisheries management framework is in place. The stock is healthy, and spawning-age females are doing well."

So what caused the drop? Well, first of all, keep in mind that last year’s survey found reported the highest crab reproduction in the history of the survey. Since young blue crabs are known to prey on each other when the densities are high, cannibalism could be a contributing factor.

A second cause may be a natural predator. Unusually high numbers of red drum fish were caught in the Bay last year. Red drum fish, which prey on young crabs, were harvested in record numbers last year. Maryland’s red drum harvest for 2012 was estimated to be 100 times greater than 2010 and 21011.

Finally, weather conditions and water quality have an impact, too. Bay grasses, which provide protection where crabs to hide from predators, have been in decline, according to a recent report.

For waterman, the WDS results are important indicators for the upcoming season. For the rest of us, we just can't wait until those crustaseans make it to our table. There's nothing like picking crabs with good friends and cold beer after a day on the water.