Maryland and Virginia released, last week, results from their annual winter dredge crab survey conducted in early 2022. That extensive survey includes sampling from more than 1,500 sites throughout Chesapeake waters to determine total numbers and types of crabs.
The glimmer of good news in the report shows a 17.5 percent increase in the number of juvenile crabs in the system – up to 101 million in 2022 from the 86 million estimated in 2021. Those are crabs that could grow to legal harvest size throughout the summer and into the fall.
That glimmer however is overshadowed by two other significant findings. The most significant is the 63 percent decline in the estimated female crabs in the system. The 2021 survey showed 158 million female crabs in the system compared to 97 million in the 2022 survey. Female crab totals are the numbers watched most closely by harvest managers in the two states. They have determined that the system needs at least 72.5 million females to maintain a sustainable fishery.
While this year’s count is still well above that red-flag threshold, it is still far below the 196 million target for female crabs that managers would like to see as indicative of a thriving population.
The second significant disturbing finding, which will probably most impact the price of crabs in the market this year, is the total number of crabs estimated to be in the Çhesapeake system compared to last. The 2022 survey found an estimated 227 million total crabs compared to 282 million in the 2021 survey. That’s a 20 percent decline and the lowest total number of crabs found in the system since the winter dredge survey began in 1990.
Although the Maryland crabbing season runs from April 1 each year through December when the crabs hibernate for the winter, the management season runs from July 1 through June 30 of the following year. Managers for the states don’t institute new regs for the current year until they’ve seen winter dredge survey results.
Based on the drastic decline in female crab numbers this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see changes in permitted harvests of female crabs starting July 1.
All that said, it has to be remembered that environmental conditions impact crab populations far more than regulations. Females make their way to the salty waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake after mating to lay their millions of eggs. Some reports indicate that a single female can release hundreds of millions of eggs in up to three broods in the course of a single year.
After those eggs are released they get swept, as emerging larvae, as far out into the ocean as the continental shelf. How many of them make their way back into the Chesapeake system as they begin to grow depends heavily on factors like varying wind direction and currents.
The population of maturing crabs counted in the winter dredge survey can swing by hundreds of millions over the course of just a few years. For example, the 2019 survey found an estimated 608 million crabs in the Chesapeake system. Just two years later, in 2021, that number fell off to 282 million crabs. In 1993 the survey found an estimated 400 million crabs compared to over 800 million in the 1994 survey. By their very nature, crab populations continually ride a roller coaster.
So, how many crabs of the total get harvested in a single season? A quick calculation using estimated numbers from one season gives a rough idea.
Federal fisheries managers estimate that crabbers in the Chesapeake system – counting Maryland and Virginia – harvested 41.6 million pounds of crabs in 2021. At an average of 40 pounds to the bushel, that computes to about 1,040,000 bushels.
If an average bushel contains about 75 crabs – more for smalls, less for large – that computes to about 78 million crabs harvested. That represents about a third or a quarter of the total number of crabs in the system that year.
Lower overall numbers will likely mean even higher prices for crabs by the bushel, by the dozen, by the pound of meat or in crab cakes. That doesn’t take into account inflation and the skyrocketing cost of fuel being paid by watermen to fish their pots and run their trotlines.
This year, the imperial in crab imperial will have likely never rung so true.
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.