The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population remains in a serious slump for the second straight year, with the number of females dropping to a dangerously low level, officials announced Thursday.
Severe winter weather, not overfishing, is largely to blame, officials said. But to improve chances of a rebound, Maryland and Virginia both plan to cut back on the bay harvest this year — a move likely to hurt the region's struggling watermen and cost crab-loving consumers, pushing high prices higher still.
"It's a little disappointing, to say the least," said Anson "Tuck" Hines, a veteran crab scientist and director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. While the survey did detect an uptick in the number of juvenile crabs, Hines said the overall stock is "still down very far, at the same distressfully low levels" seen from the 1990s until 2008, when Maryland and Virginia cracked down on the harvest to ward off a threatened population crash.
Based on an annual winterlong survey, officials estimated that 297 million crabs survived the cold weather from December through March, down slightly from last year's already low tally of 300 million. But the densities of male and female crabs found slumbering on the bay bottom were among the lowest in 25 years of sampling, data show.
Lynn W. Fegley, deputy fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said officials believe crabs are down because of prolonged frigid weather and possibly other environmental factors, such as other fish feeding on them. Low water temperatures killed off about 28 percent of the adult crabs in Maryland, one of the biggest winter kills seen since the survey began in 1990.
But Fegley said the decline in spawning-age female crabs has officials particularly concerned, because their number has dipped to 69 million, a million below the minimum that experts believe is needed to sustain the overall population.
In an attempt to protect more spawning-age females and improve the odds of a big rebound in the overall population, both Maryland and Virginia are eyeing measures aimed at reducing the commercial harvest by 10 percent.
John M.R. Bull, Virginia's marine resource commissioner, said his agency intends to act soon to protect egg-bearing females, calling the survey results "disappointing but not disastrous."
"This is showing us that we have still a lot of work ahead of us to do here," he said.
Fegley said Maryland officials expect to impose limits later in the summer to shield females who have mated so they can get down the bay to spawn. The state will consult with watermen on what to do, she said, whether lowering daily catch limits, closing the season early, or some other conservation measure.
Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, called the news "discouraging," particularly since the survey found that fishing pressure last year had stayed within the bounds scientists thought was safe. The Maryland crab harvest last year was about 19 million pounds, the lowest in more than 20 years.
Crab numbers vary from year to year, experts note, with weather playing a big role. The number of baby crabs produced each year relies heavily on conditions near the mouth of the bay in Virginia, where females all go to lay their eggs. Reaching adulthood and spawning a new generation of crabs depends on them finding food and shelter throughout the bay and its rivers, avoiding being eaten by fish and each other — and not getting caught by humans.
"We certainly hope what we're seeing is [natural] variability and not the commencement of another protracted period of reduced abundance," said Fegley. But, she added, "It's impossible to tell right now."
The crab survey saw a dramatic rebound in the crab population after the states both clamped down on the harvest during the last crisis in 2008. But the number fell sharply after 2012, for reasons that are still disputed. Virginia's Bull suggested that a huge influx in the lower bay two years ago of red drum, a fish more common in coastal waters, has gobbled up many of the baby crabs. But Maryland scientists, at least, say they're not convinced that was a major factor in the slump.
William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, suggested the bay's depleted underwater grass beds and oyster reefs might be contributing to the crabs' instability. Vulnerable young crabs hide in the grasses to avoid being eaten and forage around oyster reefs.
Both states are working to replenish oysters and bay grasses, but regaining past abundance is likely to take years, if it's ever successful.
"The fact is, fishing is the one thing we can actually control," said the Smithsonian's Hines. While experts may disagree on some of the reasons why crabs aren't flourishing, Hines said it's critical to act now to protect as many female crabs as possible, maximizing the chances for a bumper crop of baby crabs in the coming year.
But Thomas Miller, a crab researcher with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, cautioned against thinking that tighter catch limits are all that's needed to ensure the long-term future of the bay's iconic crustacean. He said the survey results leave him stumped about why crabs are down.
"Long-term sustainability needs harder choices," Miller said, "whether that's habitat improvement, water-quality improvement, the whole Chesapeake Bay restoration. … Whatever it is, it's clear the simple tool of fisheries management is not producing the results we thought it would, and we need to understand why."
With water temperatures still on the low side for spring, crabs are just starting to emerge from the bottom silt where they've spent the winter, said Brown, the watermen's association president. Most crabs that consumers see in markets and restaurants now came from the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere out of state.
But Marylanders looking to crack some crabs at a restaurant or on their deck later in the spring or summer may find them pricier than ever, if not hard to come by.
"Prices were high last year. They will be high again this year," said Steve Vilnit, fisheries marketing director for the state. To support Maryland watermen and local industry, he runs a "True Blue" program that encourages diners to patronize restaurants and retailers that serve Maryland seafood.
"Prices are up 40 percent from this time last year," said Tim Mitchell, general manager of Canton Dockside, a seafood restaurant and crab house in Canton. "It's pretty incredible how high the prices have gone."
On Thursday, the price for medium crabs was $71 a dozen and a dozen large crabs were $83. There were no extra large ($97) or jumbos ($130) available, Mitchell said, but he expected that to change. "It seems like the supply in the last couple of weeks has jumped dramatically," Mitchell said.
Anthony Conrad, whose family-owned business, Conrad Crabs, operates crab houses and retail shops at locations in Perry Hall, Parkville and Jacksonville, said he was taking the survey results with a grain of salt.
"One good thing [the survey] does do is it makes the consumer understand why prices are the way they are," Conrad said.