Earlier this year, Maryland and Virginia both decided to shorten the crabbing season after the annual population survey showed the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is shrinking.
In 2016, the survey estimated that there were 550 million crabs in the bay. This year, however, the survey revealed a shocking reduction, estimating 455 million blue crabs. That is close to a 100 million reduction in just one year. Even though the survey saw a record high number of female blue crabs, the year-over-year drop off came from a decline of 54 percent in juvenile blue crabs, which are essential to sustaining the entire population.
When the Maryland Department of Natural Resources made the announcement in the Summer of 2017, the scientists behind the study urged the state government to “maintain a cautious, risk-averse approach.” That risk-averse approach began with a week-and-a-half reduction in the commercial crabbing season — now ending November 20 instead of November 30 — as well as late season bushel limits. The Virginia Marine Resource Commission followed suit and not only voted to end the 2017 crabbing season early, but also to adjust the beginning of the 2017 season to give crabs more opportunity to spawn.
The reasoning behind these changes is simple. With the surveys showing fewer juvenile blue crabs than expected, it is important that both states shorten their crabbing seasons to ensure that as many of these crabs survive so they can spawn next year.
“If you don’t have juveniles to grow up and reproduce, then you have an issue with your stock,” Laurie Naismith, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, said. “We had a high level of females, but we need the juveniles to maintain a good stock.”
While shortening the season by a few days at the back and front ends might not seem like drastic measures, it could prove essential to helping crab population in both states rebound. However, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources is taking an unusual step and voted to allow crab processors to rely on more pregnant female crabs for crab meat.
In order to protect the future spawn and the crab population as a whole, Maryland heavily regulates crab processors and prohibits them from using egg-bearing female crabs, also known as sponge crabs, for crabmeat. Sponge crabs are easily recognizable because they carry an egg sac on the outside of their bodies. Maryland has long banned processors from harvesting sponge crabs and this makes sense. If you want to preserve the species, then regulations should make sure that the egg-bearing females are protected from the harvest. However, starting next year, crab processors may be allowed to import egg-bearing female crabs between April 15 and August 15.
This is where the technicalities of each state come into play. Virginia only bans the harvesting of “dark sponge crabs,” meaning pregnant crabs that will give birth imminently. Other egg-bearing crabs are allowed to be harvested. Currently, Maryland crab processors are allowed to import sponge crabs between April 25 and July 5. This new regulation would add an additional 41 days to the import window.
While this may help alleviate the concerns of the Maryland crab processors who noticed a decline in their harvest this year, it will only serve to further endanger the already vulnerable interstate crab populations. This is not just something Maryland can pawn off on Virginia. Virginia’s blue crabs are Maryland’s blue crabs.
During the life cycle, pregnant blue crabs migrate south from the Chesapeake Bay to warmer Virginia waters in order to give birth. Adolescent crabs then migrate back north towards Maryland and help begin the whole mating process all over again. If it is illegal for crabbers to harvest pregnant crabs in Maryland waters because it would threaten the species, then that logic should apply regardless of what state’s waters a crab walks into. This is made even more complicated by the fact that Virginia’s harvest report does not differentiate between female crabs and pregnant, sponge crabs, meaning that the immediate impact on the entire ecosystem will not even be known if this new regulatory change passes.
Crabbers are legitimately worried that not only will introducing sponge crab meat onto the market lower crabmeat prices, but it also could have a devastating impact on the entire fishery and crab population.
“If we open this wide, in three years, you can take your crab pots and trot lines and burn them up,” Willy Dean, a Southern Maryland crabber, said after the Maryland panel made its announcement.
For now, we will have to wait and see.