ANNAPOLIS – Blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay stabilized this year after a decade-long decline, but still remain at a “historic low point” for the bay’s No. 1 fishery, according to a report released Friday.
Crab population leveled off in 2002, the Chesapeake Bay Commission report shows, somewhat above the nadir seen in 2000 and 2001.
Still, preliminary estimates of this year’s harvest indicate it will be a below-average year.
A low harvest could actually have a positive effect. When combined with a rising population, it could give crabs the boost they need to avoid a species crash.
Stocks dwindled during the ’90s due to overfishing and habitat destruction. By 2001, some lawmakers feared a collapse similar to other bay species, particularly the oyster.
To combat this, in 2001 Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission began a 15 percent reduction in crab harvests over three years.
The report, issued by the Chesapeake Bay Commission – a legislative group that advises the General Assemblies of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania on bay issues – amounts to a three-year status report.
“Pressure on the bay’s blue crab stock remains high,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission.
The stock saw a marginal improvement in population, measured by four surveys that sample bay waters for crabs. The surveys provide information independent of harvest figures. These surveys give scientists an overall sense of abundance, but offer no hard population numbers.
Although scientists do not completely rely on them, harvest figures remain a good indicator of species health, as well as a benchmark for restoration progress. Restoring the harvest to healthy levels is the commission’s ultimate task, Swanson said.
The 2002 baywide commercial crab harvest was 52 million pounds, well below the long term average of 73 million pounds.
This year’s harvest is likely to come in even lower. By the end of September this year, the report says, Maryland and Virginia had only harvested 23 million pounds and only 1 million pounds were harvested in the Potomac through July.
Crabbing efforts are down by 40 percent in 2003, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland watermen’s association, due to harvesting restrictions and nitrogen pollution.
Nitrogen runoff from farms, sewage treatment plants and air pollution causes algal blooms that rob the water of oxygen as they decay. This caused an oxygen-scarce environment in the bay this summer, forcing crabs to hibernate and crabbers to come up empty handed.
Fall harvest figures seem to point to a rebound, Simns said, attributing it to cooler weather, which enriched the water with oxygen.
Yet Simns said politicians must work harder to clean up pollution, rather than relying solely on harvest limits to save the crabs.
“We’re making our sacrifice, but we don’t see the government and the state and city municipalities making their sacrifice.”