Maryland to limit female crab catch

Maryland moved Monday to reduce the commercial harvest of female blue crabs in the aftermath of a survey finding that the Chesapeake Bay's crab population hit a five-year low last winter.

The Department of Natural Resources announced that it was lowering the daily allowable catch of female crabs, effective Thursday. The move comes nearly a month after Maryland and Virginia officials announced the results of their annual winter dredge survey, which found that the bay's crab population had declined by nearly two-thirds over the previous year, to around 300 million, with juvenile crabs plummeting 80 percent.

The number of female crabs increased substantially despite the overall decline, and remained well above the threshold scientists say is needed to sustain the population. But officials said they would seek to reduce the female crab harvest by 10 percent as a precaution, to boost prospects for a good spawn this year and possibly spark a rebound in the prized crustaceans.

Officials are reducing the daily catch limits on female crabs by 20 to 40 percent, depending on the time of year and the number of "pots" each commercial waterman is licensed to use to harvest crabs.

Leaders of the state's commercial fishing groups voiced displeasure with the cutbacks, saying they didn't understand why catch limits had to be reduced so much.

"We all want a sustainable fishery," said Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. "It's just very complicated."

Brenda Davis, chief of DNR's crab program, said a simple 10 percent reduction in catch limits would not reduce the actual harvest enough because many watermen were not catching their limits before.

"In May there's not as many people participating in the fishery," she explained, "and the odds of them catching more than the bushel limit is not very high."

Overall, the state has about 5,200 licensed crabbers. The female crab catch varies by time of year and their location in the bay. Crabbers in the rivers and upper bay tend to catch more males, while lower bay crabbers harvest more females in late summer and fall, when they migrate down the bay to spend the winter in Virginia.

Davis said that the new rule, which limits female catch to anywhere from four bushels a day up to 30, would have the biggest effect on those watermen who fish the most "pots," the wire cages used to harvest crabs in the bay.

Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed support for the new catch limits.

"We need to turn this thing around," he said, referring to the drop in the bay's population.

Crabbing limits are under consideration as well in Virginia and on the Potomac River, where fisheries regulators also have vowed to reduce the female harvest by 10 percent this year.

Maryland's crab season began April 1 and runs through Dec. 15, though the harvest of females is barred after Nov. 10. Recreational crabbers are not allowed to catch any females.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com