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Survey shows significant drop in blue crabs in bay

ANNAPOLIS — The number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has dropped steeply, according to an annual survey released Friday, and Maryland officials said they will work with the crabbing industry to reduce bushel limits by about 10 percent for female crabs this year.

On a positive note, the number of spawning-age females increased by 52 percent after troubling numbers last year. The 2013 winter dredge survey, which samples about 1,500 sites across the bay, found the total number of blue crabs fell from 765 million to 300 million. The number of juvenile crabs fell from 581 million to 111 million.

“The bottom-line message is that the population overall — the number of crabs that are in Chesapeake Bay upon which the 2013 fisheries will work — is quite a bit lower than it was,” said Lynn Fegley, deputy director of fisheries at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The results are particularly disappointing, because last year’s survey noted the highest crab reproduction in the 24 years of the survey. Usually with a population increase like that, the harvest would be expected to increase.

“We didn’t see that, and what seems to have happened this year is that not only did we get low reproduction, but we seem to have had an elevated mortality event on the record juvenile class of last year,” Fegley said.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the survey results were disappointing.

“Anytime you take a cut in your catch, you’ve got a cut in pay,” Brown said, noting that a 10 percent reduction in the female catch would probably mean a net loss to watermen of about 5 percent.

There are a variety of potential reasons for the decline. Maryland and Virginia both reported a large influx of red drum fish, which are highly predatory on crabs. Virginia anglers last year caught and released 2.5 million red drum. That’s 40 times the 61,330 reported in 2011 and nearly 90 times the 28,580 reported in 2010, according to federal records. Maryland’s 2012 red drum harvest is estimated to be nearly 300,000 fish, compared to fewer than 3,000 in 2010 and 2011.

Also, when crabs live in high densities, they prey on each other. In addition, the state had a record class of striped bass two years ago, and they also eat crabs.

William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the drop in crabs was likely the result of weather, pollution, habitat loss and increased predation. Bay grasses that provide protection for crabs have been significantly reduced in recent years.

“While progress has been made, the Chesapeake Bay remains a system dangerously out of balance,” Baker said in a statement. “Implementing the states’ Clean Water Blueprints will finish the job.”

DNR officials noted that harvest levels remain below the scientifically established target for the last five years, and the overall population decline found this year is not a result of fishing.

“It is important to keep these results in perspective: Five years ago this fishery was declared a federal disaster. That is no longer the case,” said Jack Travelstead, commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “Overfishing is no longer occurring, a good fisheries management framework is in place, the stock is health and spawning-age females are doing well. If not for the disappointingly small reproductive year class, we would have much to celebrate.”

DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have conducted the primary assessment of the bay’s blue crab population annually since 1990. The survey is conducted from December through March when blue crabs are usually buried in the mud and stationary, enabling scientists to develop estimates of their numbers in the bay.