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Record low numbers prompt limits on Chesapeake Bay crabbing

ANNAPOLIS — New restrictions on crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay will take effect this year after the blue crab count plummeted to its lowest level since surveys began in 1990.

Tighter harvest limits are being issued by both Maryland and Virginia as officials and industry leaders try to protect the iconic species and boost reproduction in the nation’s largest estuary.

The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources is issuing the first-ever limits on how many bushels of male blue crabs can be hauled in each day. Limits typically regulate the harvesting of female crabs to ensure that enough of them spawn.

The new rules start in July for Maryland and will limit the number of bushels that can be hauled in each day. A bushel amounts to approximately five to seven dozen crabs.

The cuts in Maryland will translate to about 15% to 25% of daily commercial harvest limits compared to the 2021 crabbing season, depending on the license. It’s unclear how much of an effect the new restrictions will have because watermen don’t hit their limits every day.

Bushel limits will also be reduced in Virginia for crabs – both male and female — starting Oct. 1. The limits will remain in place for the start of the 2023 season, which begins in mid-March, and lasts until mid-May.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission said in a statement Thursday that it also will work with its Crab Management Advisory Committee to address some longer term conservation issues for next year.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an independent conservation group, said the harvest limits are an encouraging step but more needs to be done to address the likely causes behind the low crab count.

Those include “poor water quality, loss of key habitat such as underwater grasses, and the proliferation of blue catfish and other invasive predators,” said Allison Colden, the foundation’s Maryland senior fisheries scientist.