Some good news this week on the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population. But first let me make a good news correction related to last week’s column about the successful 2022-2023 wild oyster harvest.
Maryland Shellfish Division Director Chris Judy let me know that the average price per bushel of oysters in the 2022-2023 season was $43, considerably higher than the $30 I reported. That’s good news because it means that the total dockside value of the oysters harvested was $26,600,000 instead of the $18,600,000 I reported. Happy to make that correction.
Now the good crab news. Results from the several month-long Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey in 2023 show that the total estimated crab population in Chesapeake Bay stands at 323 million crabs. That’s a 96 million increase – 42 percent – over the 227 million estimate determined for 2022 from that year’s survey. The 2022 survey estimate was the lowest on record since the survey first started three decades back.
The annual survey is a cooperative effort between Maryland’s fisheries services and Virginia’s Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
More important than the total overall increase is the increase in female crabs found this year compared to last year. This year’s survey of 1,500 stations up and down the Chesapeake found an estimated 152 million female crabs compared to the 97 million estimate calculated from the 2022 results. That’s a 57 percent increase over last year and well ahead of the 72.5 million mark that fisheries scientists consider the threshold minimum for sustaining a blue crab population in the Chesapeake. Scientists have set a target number of 197 million females – the spawning stock in the Bay – as the number they feel is needed to sustain a thriving crab industry.
The number of juvenile crabs in the Chesapeake system this year is estimated at 116 million compared to last year’s 101 million estimate, a 15 percent increase. Those juveniles are crabs that could grow to market size during the season that runs from April 1 through the end of November, depending on where managers set the season each year.
It’s estimated that about 78 million crabs were harvested from the Chesapeake during the 2022 season. Figuring each bushel of crabs contains about 75 crabs, depending on size, those 78 million crabs equate to about 1,040,000 bushels.
Maryland and Virginia crab managers reduced harvest limits last July to reflect the dire 2022 winter dredge survey population estimates. Despite those reductions, the total harvest in 2022 of 78 million crabs is believed to have been the same as the 2021 harvest.
This past winter’s mild weather may have resulted in lower than usual die-offs during the hibernation months. For consumers, more crabs in the system may result in lower prices this year for crabs by the dozen, by the bushel, and for pounds of crab meat. That would be welcome during these inflationary times when food prices have increased significantly
Managers by law have to set new harvest limits, based on the most recent results, by July 1 each year. Meanwhile, along the waterfront, watermen and buyers are reporting that the crabs are running.
The Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey, in operation since 1990, allows researchers to, according to VIMS:
Accurately gauge the total population of blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay
Identify year-to-year trends in blue crab abundance
Characterize the size and sex of individual crabs
Estimate over-wintering mortality
Understand seasonal migration patterns, and
Assess the effects of the crab harvest
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore issued this statement about this year’s survey results:
“While this year’s numbers show some signs of recovery in the Bay’s blue crab population, there is still plenty of cause for caution. Because the blue crab population fluctuates annually due to a variety of factors, we hope the improvements observed this year continue over the long term.
“The recent decline in the Bay’s underwater grasses is likely contributing to low blue crab numbers, as well as pollution and predation by invasive blue catfish. Long-term recovery of the Bay’s blue crab population will only be possible through continued wise management of the fishery, combined with actions to improve water quality and address predation from invasive species in the Bay.”
The total estimated number of crabs living in the Bay for each year of the survey is listed below:
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. Photo by CHESAPEAKE BAY PROGRAM PHOTO