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Survey reports decrease in blue crab population

VMRC to consider 10% harvest reduction

The annual scientific winter dredge survey of the bay-wide blue crab population shows a mixed bag of good, and not-so-good, news that may result in a slight tightening of commercial harvest restrictions, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).

The overall abundance of blue crabs dropped precipitously, from 765 million to 300 million crabs. This was because the number of juvenile crabs plummeted from 581 million to a mere 111 million.

“This is disappointing, but it is not a disaster and not without precedent,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Jack Travelstead. “Crab spawning naturally fluctuates and can be impacted by wind, tide, weather and increased predation on juvenile crabs by other species. Clearly, we are in no position to expand the commercial crab harvest this year.”

The good news: While the overall crab population dropped, the number of spawning-age females increased substantially, from 95 million to 147 million, and remains well above the scientifically-established, healthy-abundance threshold of 70 million.

Adult females are the cornerstone of the joint Virginia-Maryland stock rebuilding program that began in 2008, when a fisheries management framework was established to conserve adult females because they can spawn an average of three million new crabs each brood and release about three broods per year.

The drop in overall crab abundance this year was not the result of overfishing. The 2012 commercial bay-wide crab harvest is estimated to be 56.1 million pounds. This is a decrease of about 11 million pounds from 2011 and is well below the safe-harvest target level.

That the harvest did not increase is a strong indication that the record-shattering number of baby crabs recorded last winter did not end up on the dinner table, as anticipated, when they reached market size late last summer.

In light of the substantial drop in overall blue crab abundance due to a poor reproductive year, the three jurisdictions that manage crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries—Virginia, Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission—agree harvest restrictions of approximately 10% are necessary this year.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 04.24.2013

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