The 2014 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey results indicate that female blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay have declined below minimum levels, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The abundance of spawning-age females was estimated to be 69 million, below the minimum safe level of 70 million.
While the crabbing harvest remained at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year, and juvenile crabs increased 78 percent from 2013’s record low, the total abundance of crabs — which include juveniles, and adult males and females – has returned to pre-2008 levels of approximately 300 million.
The results illustrate the inherent variability of the Blue Crab population and the ever-present complexities of managing this dynamic fishery. There are a suite of environmental factors that could be contributing to the low crab abundance, including the unusually cold winter, coastal currents, weather patterns and natural predators.
The long cold winter appears to be one cause of the low abundance level. Low water temperatures resulted in one of the worst cold-kill events since the start of the survey in 1990, causing the death of an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in Maryland.
The decline in spawning age females will be the biggest factor in determining new management actions by Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to increase reproductive potential in 2014 and 2015.
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 employs crab dredges to sample Blue Crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March.
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, supported by NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, is reviewing the data; their 2014 Blue Crab Advisory Report is expected to be released in early summer.
Complete survey results are available at dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/crab/dredge.asp.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources