By Jacob Baumgart
The number of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs fell this year to the lowest level ever recorded in the 33 years of data.
Officials estimated that the bay now has 227 million crabs. That’s down from the 282 million tallied last year. The all-time high of 852 million crabs came in 1993.
“The results of this year’s survey continue a worrying trend for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay region,” said Chris Moore, a senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Maryland has tracked the crab count since 1990. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources released this year’s 2022 Baywide Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey on Thursday.
There was also a drop in the number of females that are old enough to reproduce or spawn. There were 158 million spawning age female crabs in 2021, but there are 97 million in 2022.
The number of spawning age females was still above the minimum threshold of 72.5 million for the eighth straight year. This means there are enough females to produce a healthy batch of crabs next year. Still, the female abundance is far from its thriving target of 196 million.
The number of male crabs continues to be troublesome. This year saw 28 million adult male crabs, which is the lowest level on record.
The juvenile crab count showed some hope. There are currently 101 million juveniles. That’s up slightly from the 86 million juveniles in 2021, but it’s the third consecutive year of below-average recruitment. That means there aren’t enough juveniles continuing on to become adults.
“Blue crab reproduction is naturally variable and it is difficult to identify a singular reason for the recent period of low juvenile abundance,” the state’s Department of Natural Resources said in a news release. “Larval blue crabs develop in ocean waters over the continental shelf and many factors can influence recruitment success such as oceanic conditions, available nursery habitat, predation, and other environmental conditions.”
Fixing the problem
With crab levels declining, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee will host a workshop to explore potential ways to increase the number of juveniles that become adults.
The group will offer its scientific advice for management during its May meeting. The Department of Natural Resources will then work with the Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee to give guidance on how to sustain the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population.
Officials said crabbers are largely following all the current regulations.
Commercial crabbers are up to five mature female hard crabs per bushel of male crabs or 13 mature female hard crabs per barrel of male crabs. Recreational crabbers cannot sell or possess any hard female crab, egg-bearing crab known as a sponge or female peeler crab that’s about to molt its shell. More information on the latest laws is available here.
“The Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions have maintained harvest of blue crabs at safe levels set forth in the last benchmark stock assessment since 2008,” the Department of Natural Resources said. “Despite meeting these management objectives, adult blue crab abundance has steadily declined.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urged the state to protect juveniles, adult males and spawning-age females.
“This year’s survey follows two consecutive years of declines in the coverage of underwater grasses, one of the most important habitats for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay,” Moore said. “It is likely that the loss of grasses is contributing to the blue crab’s decline, along with water quality challenges and predation by invasive blue catfish.”
The Department of Natural Resources conducts the annual survey in partnership with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The team captures, measures, records and releases blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay each December through March. The full report is posted at this link.