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Winter dredge survey: 43% more crabs

by Larry S. Chowning

Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced in April that winter dredge surveys have determined that the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population has increased from 280 million in 2007-08 to just over 400 million in 2008-09.

“This is terrific news and a great first step, but this does not mean the problem is solved,” said Governor Kaine.  “This scientific survey clearly shows we are on the right path but we need to continue our conservation efforts to rebuild this environmentally and economically vital species.  I want to thank our crab industry for their support and endurance through these difficult times.”

The bay-wide blue crab winter dredge survey is a cooperative effort between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Since 1990, the survey has employed crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 locations from December through March. By sampling during the winter when blue crabs are buried in the mud and stationary, scientists can develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the bay.

Last year, Maryland and Virginia established conservation measures in an effort to help stimulate the crab population. One of those was to ban winter crab dredging because officials contended it targeted female crabs.

Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen’s Association, said he believes there will be an increase in the crab population, but not because of the ban on crab dredging and other regulations.

Smith said crab dredgers were responsible for harvesting 7 to 9 percent of the total commercial crab catch on the bay—too small an amount to make much difference in the overall population.

He praised the efforts of the states in attempting to bring back the crab population, but feels that if there is an improvement, the credit should go to the “Lord and Mother Nature,” and not regulations, scientists and politicians.

Kenneth W. Williams of Hartfield, a former watermen’s representative on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), is skeptical of the survey results.  He said survey dredging in the past has not always been conducted in the vicinity of where crabs annually migrate to the mouth of the bay.

“Maybe this year they worked in the right places,” said Williams, suggesting this may be the reason the survey shows an increase in population.

Urbanna commercial crab potter Ed Payne feels that crab dredging was a primary factor in the decline of the crab population, particularly during the spring runs of blue crabs. “Either the dredger catches them in the winter, or the crab potter catches them in the spring and summer,” he said. 

“If crabs come back strong, and there are already early indicators that they will, it does not always help the watermen,” noted Payne. “When there were plenty of crabs in the 1940s, I sold crabs for as low as 3 cents a pound. I understand now that crab potters down the bay are getting $8 a bushel for crabs at the dock. That means there are plenty of crabs.

“If there are few crabs, we get a good price at the dock,” said Payne. “If there are too many, we have to give our crabs away. One thing for sure, the only place the price will go down is at the dock. The price of crab meat will be the same or higher in the supermarket.”

posted 05.06.2009

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