Information on Blue Crab Regulations

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This article summarizes the regulations for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, and includes the perspective of the VMRC. In a few weeks, I’d like to talk to a neighbor and Chesapeake waterman, to share his perspective as well.

There are lower than average numbers of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay this year according to the annual winter dredging surveys, from the Virginia Marine Resources Committee (VMRC) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, released last week. With this news, there is concern over the numbers of adult female crabs in bay waters. In order to ensure that there is a sustainable reproducing population of crabs for next year, should there be additional or harsher regulations enforced for the culling of adult female crabs carrying eggs, also known as sponge crabs, this season?

Sponge crabs are defined as an “adult female hard blue crab that has extruded her eggs on the abdomen or abdominal flap, and eggs have developed a coloration ranging from any shade of brown through black,” according to the VMRC. Female crabs spawn anywhere from two to nine months after mating. When spawning, crabs migrate to high salinity waters, traveling to the lower reaches of the Bay in September or October. Sponge crabs generally release their eggs the following spring and summer, from May to August.

The current regulation for the culling of sponge crabs in Virginia is limited possession from March 17 through June 30. A person in possession of a crabbing license shall not have more than 10 dark sponge crabs per bushel or 35 dark sponge crabs per barrel. Any additional sponge crabs culled in this time frame must be returned to the water.

Maryland regulation toward the culling of sponge crabs is significantly more limited. Unless imported from another state from April 25 through July 5, no person shall be in possession of, transport, or pack sponge crabs or a female crab from which the egg pouch has been removed.

The VMRC press release from last week stated that the minimum safe level of 70 million spawning-age female crabs was estimated to be in the bay in this year’s survey, and that “management actions will be considered in the upcoming months.” The crabbing season in already well underway, and the culling of sponge crabs is still allowed, albeit in limited numbers, until June 30. If a decision is made in the upcoming months, will it be too late to limit the catch of sponge crabs this season? Should Virginia adopt Maryland’s stricter regulations for the culling of sponge crabs? Given that sponge crabs release their eggs from May to August, should the limitation of possession of sponge crabs be extended past the end of June? Perhaps permanently?

I recently spoke with a contact at the VMRC on regulations that will be used to protect crab numbers in the future. According to the VMRC, the juvenile crab population, both males and female, is at a higher abundance this year (199 million juvenile crabs) than was recorded in 2013 (111 million juvenile crabs).  Future management strategies will focus on these crabs for 2014 and 2015. The juvenile crabs will begin to enter the fishery this August into the fall of 2014, and represent a large part of the potential spawning stock for 2015.  The VMRC states, “The management strategy from this point forward will be two-fold:  Continue the current female management framework that was established initially in 2008 is the first part.  The second part is to establish measures to conserve the juvenile crabs of 2014 to become the potential spawners of 2015.”

Virginia regulators will continue to work with Maryland’s Department of Conservation and the Potomac River Fisheries, a partnership that has been ongoing for 5 years. These departments will look at factors such as submerged aquatic vegetation, water temperatures, overwintering mortality, and water quality, which have an effect on the blue crab population.

Other Virginia regulations on crabbing:

The lawful seasons for the harvest of male crabs shall be March 17 through November 30, 2014.  The lawful seasons for the harvest of female crabs shall be March 17 through November 30, 2014.

Size restrictions:

From March 16 through July 15, it shall be unlawful for any person to harvest, possess, sell or offer for sale more than 10 peeler crabs, per United States standard bushel, or 5.0% of peeler crabs in any other container, that measure less than 3-¼ inches across the shell from tip to tip of the longest spikes.  From July 16 through November 30, 2014, it shall be unlawful for any person to harvest, possess, sell or offer for sale more than 10 peeler crabs, per United States standard bushel, or 5.0% of peeler crabs in any other container, that measure less than 3-½ inches across the shell from tip to tip of the longest spikes, except as described in subsections B and C of this section.

From July 16 through November 30, 2014, it shall be unlawful for any person to harvest, possess, sell or offer for sale more than 10 peeler crabs, per United States standard bushel, or 5.0% of peeler crabs in any other container, that are harvested from waters on the ocean side of Accomack and Northampton counties and measure less than 3-¼ inches across the shell from tip to tip of the longest spikes, except as described in subsection C of this section.

It shall be unlawful for any person to take, catch, harvest, possess, sell or offer for sale, or to destroy in any manner, any soft crab that measures less than 3-½ inches across the shell from tip to tip of the longest spikes.

Restricted areas:

Virginia has 4 blue crab sanctuary areas where crabbing is restricted (areas that tend to have high numbers of sponge crabs)

Commercial crabbing is restricted on Sundays

Maryland regulations on crabbing:

A person may not catch blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries from December 16 through March 31, inclusive.

An individual licensed to catch crabs for commercial purposes may not harvest mature female hard crabs from the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries during the periods:

(a) June 1 through June 15, inclusive;

(b) September 26 through October 4, inclusive; and

(c) November 11 through December 15 inclusive.

A person may not catch crabs using a crab scrape from October 31 to April 14, inclusive. (dredging)

An individual licensed to catch crabs for commercial purposes may not catch or possess in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries more than:

(a) Five mature female hard crabs per bushel of male crabs; or

(b) 13 mature female hard crabs per barrel of male crabs.

Size restrictions:

From April 1 through July 14, it is illegal to catch or possess a hard crab which measures less than 5 inches across the shell from tip to tip of the spike, from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries, except that the minimum size of crabs does not apply to mature female crabs, identified by the apron;

-After July 14, it is illegal to catch or possess a hard crab which measures less than 5-1/4 inches across the shell from tip to tip of the spike from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries, except that the minimum size of crabs does not apply to mature female crabs, identified by the apron;

– It is illegal to catch or possess a hard crab which measures less than 5 inches across the shell from tip to tip of the spike from the waters of Worcester County, except that the minimum size of crabs does not apply to mature female crabs, identified by the apron;

– It is illegal to catch or possess more than 10 peeler crabs per bushel or more than 20 per float, which are:

(a) Less than 3-1/4 inches across the shell from tip to tip of the spike during the period from April 1 through July 14; and

(b) Less than 3-1/2 inches across the shell from tip to tip of the spike during the period from July 15 through December 15; or

-It is illegal to catch or possess more than one soft crab per 2 dozen soft crabs which is less than 3-1/2 inches across the shell from tip to tip of the spike

Commercial crabbing is restricted on Sundays and Mondays

* The Maryland regulations on the culling of female crabs were a response to low survey numbers in 2007. In 2008, Virginia and Maryland agreed to limit the number of fishermen, pots and traps, allowable hours in a fishing day and/or months in a season. Maryland shortened the crabbing season, Virginia outlawed winter dredging that year (which was already illegal in Maryland). The following years saw a blue crab recovery, although it is hard to contribute that to a change in management or to weather conditions.

Related: Interesting article on the history of crabbing regulations in Maryland and Virginia from the Maryland Sea Grant Chesapeake Quarterly (UMD’s Chesapeake Bay research program)

http://ww2.mdsg.umd.edu/cq/v11n2/main1/

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