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Blue crabs' numbers soar in Chesapeake

Bring on the melted butter. The cherished blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay are on the rebound. Jubilant Maryland and Virginia officials announced Wednesday that the estimated population had increased 60 percent over last year.

Bring on the melted butter.

The cherished blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay are on the rebound.

Jubilant Maryland and Virginia officials announced Wednesday that the estimated population had increased 60 percent over last year.

It's the first time since 1997 that levels are this high. Scientists figure 658 million of the luscious little crustaceans are scuttling about - or about to scuttle about, when the water warms - on the bay bottom.

The number remains far below the 852 million in 1993. But let's not get too crabby.

"Today, we can see firsthand what progress looks and feels like on the Chesapeake Bay," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who appeared on the crab deck of a Kent County restaurant, the Fisherman's Inn.

He and others credit a brutal set of crabbing restrictions enacted in Maryland and Virginia to reduce the harvest 34 percent for the last two years.

When the restrictions started in 2008, the blue crab was suffering historic lows in spawning stock. The U.S. Department of Commerce declared the Chesapeake Bay crab fishery a federal disaster and $15 million in federal funds arrived for each state to bolster crabs and watermen.

Now, officials are saying the measures were as successful as they were politically contentious.

The latest numbers come from a bay-wide winter survey in which dredges collect crabs, still buried in the mud, at 1,500 sites in the bay. It was conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Most years, crabbers harvest roughly 50 percent of the bay's crabs. Fifty-three percent is considered sustainable, but in seven of the years between 1998 and 2007, the harvest exceeded that.

The 2009 harvest has not yet been confirmed, but initial counts put it at 53.7 million pounds - or 43 percent of the bay's total crab population. That's below the target level of 46 percent.

The happy crab news couldn't come at a better time for Port Richmond tavern owner Frank Byrne, who just bought a bushel of blue crabs - not from the Chesapeake - for a chokingly high $225.

Byrne's Tavern has been around for 32 years come July, and at one time crabs were a specialty.

But they got so expensive that Byrne switched to promoting his wings. Or his 52 beers. Anything but the crabs, which he now weighs individually and sells for as much as $8 or $9 - per crab.

It's still too early for Maryland crabs, he said, so he's buying from Texas, Florida, and Mexico. "When you're desperate for crabs, you take 'em from wherever you can get 'em."

But he hopes he can get - and afford - Chesapeake crabs this summer. "Personally, the quality of the crab coming out of the Chesapeake is the best anywhere," he said.

Even as Byrne was all but firing up the steamer, 100 miles south in Rock Hall, Md., Chuckie White was readying his crab pots. When the bay water reaches 60 degrees - in a few weeks, maybe - he'll rev up his boat, Good Enough, and head out into the Chesapeake.

He talked Wednesday to a crabber working farther south, near Cape Charles, Va., who was seeing a dramatic increase in crabs.

White, 51, started crabbing with his father when he was 10 or 12 and now is president of the Kent County Watermen's Association, which has about 200 members.

The last few years have been tougher than usual, he said. Watermen lost 15 percent to 40 percent of their income. They made ends meet by moonlighting with land jobs. The federal government also paid some to reclaim "ghost" crabbing gear - lost in storms or when lines were cut by propellers.

What was good about fishing up the lost gear was that watermen discovered that the pots were filled with baby soft clams, a sign that another industry once worth billions may also be rebounding.

Actually, White doubts that the restrictions were a critical factor for the crabs and would like to see them relaxed.

"I think the bay quality's getting a little bit better," he said. "I've seen it as far as the water being clearer. That tells you something."

Plus, the oyster harvest was up this year, he said. Rockfish were up. "I think everything's increasing a little bit."

On Delaware Bay, meanwhile, there's no boom, but no bust either. The crab population is "moderately abundant," said Desmond Kahn, a fisheries biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. After a high period in the mid-1990s, where the peak harvest was 13.2 million pounds of crabs, harvests have stabilized at six to nine million pounds a year, he said.

Last week, the Chesapeake Bay Program, released its 2009 "Bay Barometer," a report card on bay health, and found some progress, even though it still rated the bay as being in poor condition.

Among the improvements were an increase in bay grasses, which filter the water. Water clarity improved as well, as did average stream health scores in the watershed. It showed that nitrogen coming down the Susquehanna River has dropped more than 50 percent since 1985.

The program also had its own measures showing that blue crabs were increasing.

Last year, according to the barometer, for the first time since 1993, the population of spawning-age crabs reached 223 million, exceeding the goal of 200 million.

But officials caution that two years does not make a trend. Or guarantee a recovery.

Virginia's secretary of natural resources, Doug Domenech, thanked the watermen for their "endurance," but Gov. Bob McDonnell urged continuing "along this path to ensure the bay's crab population returns to robustness and remains at that level."

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an advocacy and watchdog group, said that what works for crabs can also work for oysters.

"This is not the end of the problem of threatened bay species and a struggling bay seafood industry," he said. "But it is a sign that, managed the right way, the fisheries can respond and even flourish again."