State of the blue crab at CBMM

A panel discusses the current state of the Chesapeake Bay crab population at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Sunday, Sept. 21.

EASTON — The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum hosted the second installment of its three-part series “State of the Crab: Community Conversations,” Sunday, Sept. 21.

The three panelists, marine scientist Brenda Davis, watermen Billy Rice and Wheldon Pruitt, along with moderator Dr. Rory Turner, professor at Goucher College, addressed the Chesapeake Bay crab population.

Davis, program manager of the Department of Natural Resources Blue Crab Program, gave an update on the the winter dredge survey, the only independent Bay-wide fishery effort to estimate the number of blue crabs. According to Davis, this effort is crucial because of the Bay-wide life cycle of the crab.

“In 2008 under the recommendation of the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee we switched from reducing the harvest time to reducing the harvest of mature females,” Davis said, explaining the regulations on crab harvest. “We would get the best bang for our buck if we left the females at a safe level. It wouldn’t guarantee we would always have a good population, but what it did was improve our odds, that if abundance got low, then we wouldn’t stay there for as long because the reproduction capacity of the blue crab is incredibly high.”

For six years after those changes were made in 2008, the population of spawning age female crabs in the Bay stayed above the recommended threshold of 70 million for a sustainable population. In 2010, the winter dredge survey even estimated the spawning age female crab population to be above the targeted 215 million.

“That unfortunately is the end of the good news,” Davis said. The 2014 survey showed the population of female spawning aged crabs to fall below the threshold of 70 million, with a total crab population of 297 million, the lowest total crab population since 2007. “The male abundance is lagging as well,” she said.

Davis cited numerous possible factors for the population decrease, including cold winters, possible toxic sediment from the Conowingo Dam, predation, and residual effects from Tropical Storm Leah and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

“Nothing is simple with blue crabs and it starts right at the life cycle,” Davis said.

“What we do on the land has a big impact as well,” Davis said. In 1973, 8 percent of Maryland was considered developed by state officials. By 2010 that number grew to 27 percent and is projected to rise an additional 15-20 percent by 2025.

“I’ve never seen the river get so muddy so quick,” Rice, a lifelong waterman who works on the Potomac River and its Maryland tributaries, said. “It takes an inch of rain to get as muddy as it used to with 5 inches.”

Rice has served on the Potomac River Fisheries Commission for the past 20 years, been affiliated with the Maryland Watermen’s Association for more than 30 years and is the chairman of the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission.

Both he and Pruitt, a waterman from Tangier Island, spoke about the lack of Bay grasses and how they believe that is a major contributor to population decrease. Pruitt also spoke about predation as a major factor.

“The not easy part is not having a definitive answer. You got to keep looking for what you hope is the right answer and you have to keep focusing on the future,” Rice said. “It’s not just fishing anymore. You got to take your white boots off and go to these meetings and got to speak up and do the best that you can.”

According to Davis it is going to take everyone working together, but she is positive.

“We have been worse off than we are right now,” she said. “We have control of the harvest rates, we have an animal that is totally capable of coming back to an adequate abundance, maybe even next year given whatever environmental magic of offshore winds and currents to get recruitment back to a reasonable environment in the Bay so that they can survive.”

The meeting was the second on “The State of the Blue Crab,” and part of an annual series of discussions and programming called “Community Conversations” on issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay region.

The third meeting will be Sunday, Sept. 28 from 2-4 p.m. on “Possibilities and Consequences” and the panel will discuss the challenges facing the crab industry.

“The State of the Crab” is supported by the Talbot County Watermen’s Association and Chesapeake Landing Restaurant. The program is free and open to the public.

To find out more about “The State of the Crab” go to www.cbmm.org or call 410-745-4959.

For more information on the winter dredge survey visit http://bit.ly/dredgesurvey.

Follow me on Twitter: @Henley_stardem.

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