By JENNIFER HLAD
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population is “roaring back,” thanks to harvest restrictions that helped boost the adult female crab population, Gov. Martin O’Malley said Wednesday.
The blue crab population increased by 60 percent from last year and is at its highest level since 1997, O’Malley said as he stood on the Crab Deck at Fisherman’s Inn in Kent Narrows, with the Chesapeake Bay behind him and a basket of crabs in front of him.
A few years ago, blue crab numbers “were starting to tank,” O’Malley said, but some people said the economic climate was too bad to make major changes. Maryland and Virginia worked together to impose restrictions on harvesting female crabs, which led to more adult female crabs last year and more young crabs this year, O’Malley said.
Both states imposed restrictions in 2008, cutting the amount of female crabs that could be harvested by a third, said Lynn Fegley, assistant director of DNR’s fisheries service. As a result, the 2008 crab harvest was low, she said, but the harvest and the population started its climb in 2009.
The DNR and Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s annual bay-wide winter dredge survey showed 283 million crabs in 2008 and 402 million in 2009. This year, the survey showed 658 million — higher than all but five years since 1990, according to data provided by the department.
The number of adult crabs has also increased dramatically, the data shows. The survey revealed 315 million crabs of spawning age this year, the highest number since 1993. The adult population was only 131 million in 2008, according to the survey data.
Fegley said the attention on female crabs was important, because before 2008, watermen were harvesting more female crabs than males. Limiting that harvest helped boost the population of healthy females, which led to increased spawning, she said.
While the growth in overall population and adult crabs was evident last year, the young crab population did not increase dramatically until this year. The survey showed 169 million juvenile crabs in 2008 and 173 million in 2009, but the number jumped to 343 million in 2010.
“This is the best news we’ve heard in a decade,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “It’s solid proof that science-based management matters.”
Swanson said the region’s crab efforts are relevant to struggles to increase the oyster population. Protecting the spawning population and allowing more reproduction will help grow the total population, she said.
O’Malley said the crab population rebound is a win for the environment and for the watermen. Despite the restrictions on harvesting females, watermen harvested more crabs in 2009 than in seven of the past 10 years because of the increase in total crab population, O’Malley said.
Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association and owner of J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, said he hopes the increase in population means the state will ease some of the harvesting restrictions.
“There are a lot of people’s lives and livelihoods at stake,” he said.
But O’Malley and Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin said major changes are unlikely.
Griffin said his department wants to maintain a thriving crab population and avoid a boom-bust cycle.
O’Malley said any changes on harvest restrictions would likely be small tweaks: “We can’t take this as some kind of irreversible trend.”