WASHINGTON – State officials foresee a potentially bountiful summer for the crab season that started Friday, based on an increase in juvenile crabs turned up in the winter dredge survey.
“We do not have a crystal ball . . . and lots of things can happen,” said Lynn Fegley, project manager for the Department of Natural Resources blue crab program. “But I will say this — we had a very strong influx of young crabs.”
The department’s winter dredge survey, released Friday, reported the largest number of young crabs since 1997, and the sixth-highest since the study began 16 years ago.
Fegley and others cautioned that the dredge survey is not a guarantee of a good crab harvest — anything can happen to the juvenile crabs before they reach the fishery, including predation and climate changes.
Watermen, who said they have been seeing baby crabs all winter as they went oystering, welcomed the prediction for the crab harvest this year. But the dredge survey has reported potentially large harvests in the past and crabs were hard to find, and vice versa, said Ben Parks, second vice president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said that it will be mid-April before the waters warm up enough for the crabs to move around and into the pots. Factors such as colder water and dirt coming into the upper Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River will challenge certain areas.
“Clearly, when we have these big flood events, things change and these animals are affected” whether they die or their distribution changes, Fegley said. “The crabs are tough but have a gauntlet to run still.”
But she said there “is a very good correlation between the bay-wide dredge abundance index and bay-wide harvest in the following year.”
“The season will have an average start and has the potential to do well as the season progresses,” she said.
Maryland’s crab harvests have been steadily increasing since 2000, when the take bottomed out at 20.2 million pounds, more than 10 million pounds below the previous year. By last year, the harvest had climbed back up to 30 million pounds.
Environmentalists welcomed the prediction for this year, but were cautious as well.
“We’ll take the short-term windfall but we’re not really quite ready to celebrate and say the crabs are out of the woods,” said Stephanie Reynolds, Maryland fisheries and oyster scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“A long-term clear trend of increased stocks of blue crabs combined with reduced pollution and improved water quality . . . would define a blue crab fishery that’s sustainable in the long term,” Reynolds said.
Watermen and scientists both said that the harvest will pick up as the water warms up and the crabs move around more. The crabs will burrow and remain more stationary in colder water, so a rise in temperature would be good for the overall harvest — and easier on the watermen.
In the coastal bays, where the shallow waters get more sun and are warmer this early in the season, Parks said watermen were already reporting crabs in their pots Friday.
“If the temperature is in the 60s for a week or so you’ll see them start to move around,” Parks said.
-30- CNS 04-01-05