ANNAPOLIS – Watermen who started power dredging for oysters under new state regulations Monday found an unpleasant surprise in their nets – dead, rotting crabs.
The hard winter – this January has been the coldest since 1994, according to the National Weather Service – is to blame for die-off, the crabbers said.
The discovery has added insult to injury.
Crab harvests are down more than 40 percent in some parts of the Chesapeake Bay, after stricter regulations were introduced last year, the watermen said at Thursday’s meeting of the Eastern Shore General Assembly delegation’s Blue Crab Task Force.
Crab harvests have been essentially flat for the past two years, at about 23 million pounds, low compared to the average 43 million-pound harvest during the boom years of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
There is no official corroboration of the crab-killing cold. The Department of Natural Resources is conducting its annual winter dredge survey right now and doesn’t know yet how much damage was done, said Eric Schwaab, director of the Department’s Fisheries Service.
The bay is a “moving target,” when it comes to predicting how crabs will cope with the winter, as salinity, temperature and age all play into the process, said Anson Hines, assistant director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
And while scientists don’t have a complete model, they do have a basic understanding of the effects a hard winter can have on the population, he said.
“Water temperatures like we’re seeing in the bay right now can be very stressful . . . particularly for mature female (crabs),” Hines said.
The damage severe winters do to the crab population supports the argument for strong conservation, said William Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But protecting the crabs from watermen just so they could be killed by the weather was a waste, said Roy Meredith, President of the Chesapeake Atlantic and Coastal Bays Waterman Coalition.
“What was trying to be saved, Mother Nature has taken away,” he said.
This is a repeat of events from 1995 and 1996, Meredith said, when a round of strict regulations preceded a hard winter, with much the same results.
“We’ve told the DNR again and again that it’s all on a cycle,” he said.
With many watermen having financial problems, seeing crabs die like this is tough to handle, Meredith said.
But, blaming the regulations for smaller crab harvests is avoiding the real issue, which is the low crab population in the bay, Schwaab said.
At their meeting, the Blue Crab Task Force discussed several DNR proposals to relax the regulations, including changing the size limit on crabs in the lower bay from 5.25 inches to 5 inches and lengthening the working day for crab potters to nine hours instead of eight. -30- CNS-1