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Cold weather keeps crabs at bottom of Chesapeake

ANNAPOLIS — For months, there’s been a countdown on the Maryland Seafood website, ticking down the months, days, hours, minutes and even seconds to the most anticipated seafood season of the year: crabbing season.

Monday marks the start of crabbing for both commercial watermen and recreational crabbers who seek the sweet meat of Maryland’s blue crabs. But don’t expect local crabs to be abundant at seafood markets, crab shacks and crab houses just yet.

The chilly end of winter and beginning of spring has left the water too cold for crabs to roust themselves from their slumber on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, according to biologists and watermen.

“This is absolutely the coldest spring I can remember,” said Shady Side’s Bob Evans, who’s been working on the water for four decades. “We’ve just had two-and-a-half inches of snow toward the end of March, and I never remember that. We’ve had a lot of wind and cold weather and the water temperature in the low 40s.”

Generally, crabs get moving when the water temperature is in the 50s, so watermen closely watch air and water temperatures before they set their crab pots in the water or start running their trotlines.

“Catchability is very dependent on water temperature,” said Brenda Davis, a biologist who runs the Blue Crab Program at the state Department of Natural Resources.

If the crabs are too cold to move, watermen can’t catch them.

“Usually we don’t see crabs moving in this part of the bay until the 20th of April,” said Pat Mahoney Jr., a waterman who also runs Wild Country Seafood in Eastport. The cold weather likely will push that back further unless there’s a steady warm spell, he said.

Even when it’s warm during the day, nighttime lows in the 30s and 40s mean the water won’t warm up. After any temperature gains in the day, “The night will take it right back away,” Mahoney said.

The water has been in the low 40s for the last few weeks at the yellow “smart” buoy just offshore from Annapolis that’s operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The weather station at the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse has been recording similarly cold water temperatures, too.

Pasadena waterman C.J. Canby doesn’t usually start setting his 900 crab pots in the water until May. He doesn’t want to waste time pulling pots that don’t have any crabs in them.

“I try to maximize the most amount of profit in the shortest amount of time,” he said.

Factoring in the cost of fuel, bait and crew, it doesn’t make sense to go crabbing when the likelihood of a good haul is small.

“It really costs us too much money right now to go to work,” said Evans, who also is president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen’s Association.

When Maryland’s 5,200 commercial crabbers do go to work, it’s uncertain how many crabs will be out there to catch.

State biologists are crunching the numbers from their annual winter survey, when they dredge crabs up from the bottom of the bay to count them. The numbers won’t be in until later in April.

Last winter’s survey showed a booming population of crabs in the Chesapeake — 764 million crabs, a 66 percent increase over the year before and the best since 1993.

Davis, the biologist, cautioned crab lovers not to expect another banner year. Crabs live only a few years and their reproduction is dependent on weather, as blue crab larvae starts out in the Atlantic Ocean and is swept into the bay by winds and tides.

Still, regulators in Maryland and Virginia are confident that they’re on the right path in managing the harvest to ensure crabs have the best chances of having good reproduction from year to year.

Since 2008, they’ve restricted the catch of female crabs — each of which can produce more than 8 million eggs in her lifetime — in hopes of protecting more of them so they can produce baby crabs. Commercial crabbers have limits on when and how many females they can catch and recreational crabbers are not allowed to keep females at all.

“Our odds of a sustainable population are better by keeping more of those mature females around,” Davis said.