By Stephen Nielsen
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – There’s bittersweet news for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab.
The general crab and young blue crab populations are very healthy, the head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said Thursday. VMRC Commissioner Jack Travelstead said the crab population in the bay has reached 764 million – the highest in nearly 20 years.
“The good news is, blue crabs are not overfished,” Travelstead said.
However, the population of adult female blue crabs – which the crabbing industry relies upon for the next generation of stock – is low.
“The number of spawning-age crabs, the adults in the population, declined last year,” Travelstead said. “Fairly significantly.”
In 2011, the population of spawning-age females was estimated at 194 million, approaching the target of 215 million. But in 2012, a survey found only about 97 million spawning-age females. This comes close to 70 million, a number that would officially label blue crabs as “overfished.”
Those figures come from the 2011-12 Winter Dredge Survey. Travelstead discussed the survey with the Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, a group of General Assembly members.
Literal overfishing isn’t the issue, Travelstead said. The state has about 15 regulations to help protect the blue crab population, including a shortened crab potting season, and restrictions on the number of crab pots allowed.
So why were the survey numbers low?
One theory explaining the decline in blue crab stock is that, because of the fairly warm winter, crabs were too active, Travelstead said. When it’s warm, crabs don’t bury in the mud and would outrun the equipment that would catch them for the survey.
Travelstead points out, however, that if this were the case, then the recent harvest would have been very good. “But it wasn’t,” he said. “This summer we had a relatively – by comparison with recent years – poor harvest.”
The yield didn’t pick up until the fall – a boost Travelstead says the industry will need again this year. The Chesapeake Bay crab industry is an important part of the Virginia’s economy.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, there was roughly $70 million in commercial dockside landings in 2008 and 2009 at the blue crab fishery. An overfished categorization would hurt the economy and the watermen who make a living off the Chesapeake.
“The important thing to remember,” Travelstead said, “is we get new numbers in April.” Despite the sharp decline in adult females, the blue crab population is not at a dangerously small level. Depending on the new survey, the previous year may not mean much, and adult blue crab populations could be far higher than in 2012.
Travelstead also addressed the question of opening the winter crab dredge fishery. Crab dredging allows the harvesting of crabs while they are dormant in the winter. For five years in a row, the VMRC has made the decision to close the winter dredge fishery.
“One of the things we lack in our understanding of the winter dredge fishery is, in addition to what it harvests, what impact it is having on the resource,” Travelstead said. The equipment used in the dredging, in addition to harvesting crabs, can damage or kill other crabs. Even some of the crabs that are caught have been damaged and can’t be sold.
Travelstead announced a study into the actual mortality rate of crabs while using this method. The study involves four commercial dredgers with scientists aboard counting the number of damaged crabs. So far, the numbers have ranged from 3 to 15 percent depending on the area.
“At some point, if the stock stays healthy, we’re going to have to reopen that fishery,” Travelstead said. “We’re not going to be able to make the argument that the fishery shouldn’t be opened.”