Blue Crabs

Virginia Watermen Propose Changes to Blue Crab Management in Chesapeake Bay

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In Virginia there is a Blue Crab Industry Panel, a group of 15 commercial watermen, that provides input on crabbing and relevant regulations to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). Given the current depleted state of crabs in the Chesapeake, this panel of watermen is calling on the VMRC to impose stronger regulations on the culling of blue crabs, then the agency passed earlier this summer.

The VMRC cut limits for the culling of blue crabs by 10% in June, and instituted these changes for all commercial crabbers. The Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel wants the VMRC to impose individual harvest limits for crabbers, rather than enforce regulations based on seasons or daily catches. In addition, the panel calls on the VMRC to put forward more scientific information on natural threats to crabs and recreational crab harvests. The panel wants the agency to institute a more efficient reporting system to increase accountability for crab harvests, and calls for an economic analysis looking at the costs and benefits of current regulations, and any that may be enacted in the near future.

According to a press release issued by the Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel, these recommendations mirror management plans that allowed rockfish to return to sustainable levels in the Bay, and focuses on long-term solutions to the crab population problem, rather than short-term “Band-Aid fixes.”

The press release can be found at Vacrabbers.com, and their full proposal here: Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel Priority Recommendations 

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Thoughts on the Bay’s Blue Crab Problem

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An editorial from the Washington Post on Sunday, “It’s now or never for blue crabs,” called for stronger regulations on crabbing in the Chesapeake. Former Post columnist Angus Phillips suggests a complete moratorium on crabbing for a few years in the Bay. Phillips targets Maryland lawmakers, hoping that the current Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley, will follow in the steps of his predecessors, and impose moratoriums on crabbing, as was done for rockfish in the 1980s by former Governor Harry Hughes.

Quite a strong point of view, but Phillips may have a point. However, a moratorium would be an enormous financial hardship to the commercial fishermen. What are your thoughts on a crabbing moratorium?

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/

Blue Crab Numbers Low Again This Year

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Today the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) released a report on this year’s Chesapeake blue crab numbers. The VMRC stated that a total of 297 million blue crabs are in the Chesapeake, based on their winter dredge survey from earlier this year. From this number, there are less than 70 millions females of spawning age. Blue crab numbers were extremely low last year, raising the cost of seafood, and limiting the work and income of Chesapeake watermen. This year’s harvest will be as bad, if not slightly worse than last year, with a further depleted blue crab population. It seems likely that Virginia and Maryland will enforce a reduction in harvest to ensure a healthier crab population for next year. The long winter and cold water temperatures were cited as a major factor for low numbers; the VMRC estimates that 28% of the Maryland adult crab population died from prolonged low water temperatures.

VMRC 5/1 Press Release

Related: Maryland Department of Natural Resources Report on Blue Crab Numbers

Slow Start for Chesapeake Crabbing Season

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Last year, the crab harvest in the Chesapeake Bay was down to historically low levels. Total abundance in blue crabs in the Bay dropped from 765 million to 300 million. The 2014 crabbing season is just beginning, and is off to a slow start, according to a piece I heard this morning on WAMU. Although there is hope that the harvest will pick up, last year saw similar reports of a slow start to the season, and incredibly low catches throughout 2013. Could we have another low crab harvest this year? It may be too early to tell.

The WAMU piece includes an interview with Robert T. Brown, the president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. He expresses uncertainty over the 2014 crab harvest, as many of the Bay’s blue crabs are still buried in the mud with the low water temperatures. The start of the crabbing season in Maryland was April 1, and March 17 in Virginia. However, many watermen will not be able to crab until temperatures warm up and crabs emerge from the Bay floor.

Related:

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) report on the 2013 Chesapeake Bay blue crab numbers

Maryland DNR commercial fishing regulations

Virginia Marine Resources Commission “Pertaining to Crabbing” (Crabbing regulations)