ANNAPOLIS – The blue crab harvest in the Chesapeake Bay was well below average last year and the outlook for this year suggests little improvement, say state officials.
“We don’t think it’s a disaster, but it’s a matter of concern,” said Pete Jensen, the deputy director of the Fisheries Service at the Department of Natural Resources. “Don’t look for great things from crabs this year.”
The 1998 crab harvest was almost 26 million pounds. In 1997, Maryland crabbers netted an average 41 million pounds, according to the department.
“That’s a pretty substantial drop in one year,” Jensen said.
Last year’s harvest was worth about $31 million, down from nearly $38 million in 1997, according to Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.
Jensen said officials are concerned about whether the decrease is unusual or constitutes a trend.
“We’ll be watching that very closely to make sure we haven’t moved to some lower level of harvest because we need some structural change in the fishery,” Jensen said.
Several surveys, including the winter dredge survey that measures all crabs caught in 1,000 different locations in the bay, indicate the numbers will not improve in the near future, officials said.
The winter survey last year registered many adult crabs but not many smaller ones. Once all the adult crabs were caught in the beginning of the season, there were no younger ones to take their place, according to Dave Blazer, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative organization concerned with the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.
This year is worse, officials say, because they are not seeing a large number of adults or smaller crabs.
“The surveys are not too optimistic,” Blazer said. “It looks like it’ll be about the same as it was last year, maybe a little bit lower.”
He said the present crab problem is the cumulative result of recreational crabbing, watermen, poachers, loss of habitat and other fish that prey on crabs.
Although underwater vegetation, a prime habitat for blue crabs, has generally increased baywide, there has been a 60 percent decrease in certain areas, threatening the crabs there. Also, growing striped bass and croaker populations are eating the crabs, Blazer said.
“When you put all those things together, there’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about,” he said.
The crab population is also strained because the state has put restrictions on catching other types of fish and shellfish.
Blue crabs “have been the only economically viable fishery for these guys to focus on,” Blazer said. “Are we taking too many crabs out of the system? Regardless of who’s doing it, that’s our major concern and primary focus of management.”
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, could not be reached for comment.
Del. Charles McClenahan, R-Somerset, said the crab problem can’t be resolved without looking at all the fisheries and food chains.
“We’ve learned over the last three years that we can’t just manage crabs without managing other species,” he said.
But Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, R-Talbot, said officials should be careful about ringing the warning bell too early, alarming the public against consuming crabs.
“It destroys the economy,” he said.
Blazer said the crab situation is not a crisis, although it is close to becoming one.
“We have an over-exploited stock. We’re taking a very cautious approach. If there are problems, we need to map this out,” he said.