In 1989, the Chesapeake blue crab (Callinectes sapidus Rathbun) was designated by law as a state crustacean in Maryland. The biological name honors Mary Jane Rathbun, the Smithsonian scientist who described this species in 1896. Unfortunately, Maryland and Virginia have dishonored the namesake and the species by allowing the population to crash to record low levels.
The evidence for this failure is crystal clear: crab numbers have declined to 227 million this winter – the lowest in 33 years of the definitive winter dredge survey of 1,500 sites. This record low comes after crab numbers fell 32% in 2020 and another 30% in 2021. We are now at less than a third of the population of 30 years ago.
Maryland and Virginia had committed, through the official bay program, to reaching and maintaining a goal of 196 million female crabs of spawning age. But the number of female crabs that will spawn this spring and summer has fallen from 158 million crabs in 2021 to 97 million, less than half of the agreed target.
While it is appropriate to protect female crabs from overexploitation, Smithsonian researchers at Edgewater documented nearly a decade ago the critical importance of sufficient numbers of large males to the reproductive success of the crab. species. As regulators allow excessive removal of large males without a daily limit, this leaves smaller, less manly males in the mating pool. This results in fewer juveniles, with serious adverse effects on crab populations.
Regulators continue to allow this overexploitation of large males without a daily limit. This led to a significant drop to 28 million adult male crabs, the lowest level on record.
All of these declines are mainly due to a third consecutive year of below-average recruitment of juvenile crabs, a severe downward spiral for these delicious crustaceans. The simple truth regulators are avoiding is that too many crabs are being caught.
Of course, there are factors other than harvest that affect crab populations. One of the most important is the abundance of laurel grasses or SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation). The SAV serves as what scientists call “crab nurseries,” where juveniles hide from predators. SAV hosts smaller creatures that serve as food for the crab. Biologists have found 5 to 30 times more juvenile crabs in SAV beds than in the bottom of the bay with no adjacent vegetation. SAV is important for all crabs, especially molting ones, protecting them from predation, as well as as vegetable gardens and sources of oxygen, especially under anoxic conditions.
Bay grasses have shrunk by more than a third from 2018 to 2020, falling to 62,169 acres in 2020, below the level of 30 years ago. This is another indication of the progress of Chesapeake Bay restoration. Bay State Governors and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had solemnly pledged in the 2000 Bay Accord to restore SAV coverage to 185,000 acres by 2010. But, 22 years later, only a third of this goal has been achieved.
Other threats to blue crabs include pollutants, dead zones low oxygen, climate change, and introduced species such as blue catfish. Until we can restore the array and its after-sales service, reduce pollutants and dead zones, and deal with other threats, we have only one management tool: stop overuse.
The drastic decline of Callinectes sapidus, translated into beautiful salt swimmers, has been happening for years. And over the past seven years, we’ve heard from state Department of Natural Resources secretaries and some regulators about how well they’re keeping blue crab harvest at safe levels and meeting management goals. The Secretary informed the public this month that blue crab reproduction is naturally variable and how other factors influence recruitment success. Many times a freezing winter is to blame, but this winter was mild so no excuses there.
Worse still, the secretary hides behind such statements and refuses to act to curb the slaughter of millions of crabs. Instead, she opts to tell the public how there will be meetings to discuss what to do, including with crabbers whom she allows to dictate crab policies.
Last year, when I wrote a column advocating greater harvest restrictions, the MNR secretary sent a letter to the capital filled with the same fluff listed above. The sad truth is that, as with oysters, this secretary and the governor who appointed her allow commercial fishers to dictate management decisions, bypassing proper scientific management.
MNR has not had a director of fisheries for over three years, since a professional fisheries biologist quit or was fired. Unqualified political appointments disregard dedicated fisheries biologists. The most egregious case involved the 2017 wrongful termination of Brenda Davis, a 28-year professional fisheries biologist with MNR.
Her offense – daring to stand up to a group of commercial crabbers who were trying to convince her to loosen the limits on crabbing. After the crabbers met with Governor Larry Hogan to complain, Davis was fired. This unjustified dismissal of a professional for having done her job gave rise to legislative hearings. DNR officials declined to reveal the reason for the shooting. There was embarrassing widespread coverage in all regional news outlets with the Washington Post headlining: “Maryland Official Fired After Watermen Meet With Governor”.
The outrageous action came after Governor Hogan criticized some DNR restrictions on commercial harvesting, which he called a “war on boatmen”. This has affected the morale of fisheries biologists and may still have a chilling effect on good fisheries management.
In the 1980s, as oyster populations plummeted, boatmen extended their crabbing efforts much later in the fall. A decade later, the crab population was halved to around 300 million, and as the crab harvest increased with prices soaring to record highs, the population shrunk further to 227 million.
A retail crab vendor on Forest Drive lists a bushel of large crabs at $450 or about $6.50 a crab. You can buy the smaller crabs for $75 per dozen or $90 for the large ones. Maryland crabmeat costs $45 a pound.
I cherish the crab from our pier and enjoy feasting on our deck with great gastronomic enthusiasm. Family crab feasts are the heart of our summers. Crab is in my blood as my paternal ancestry goes back many generations as East Coast boatmen by the name of William Messick. It makes no sense to me why a recreational crabber can’t keep a female (I never would) and can only keep two dozen male crabs a day (which I can never catch) in two crab pots , while some commercial crabbers can take up to 39 bushels of female crabs, use 900 traps from one boat and keep an unlimited number of male crabs.
The collapse in crab numbers saddens me and not just because soft crabs are my #1 favorite food with crab cakes second. It is a real tragedy of the commons. The time has come for DNR to restrict commercial harvesting by adopting strict daily bushel limits for males and drastically lowering bushel limits for females, reducing the number of crab pots used, shortening the crab fishery, by closing the crab fishery two days a week and by adopting a quota system for each commercial crabber as for redfish.
Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area at the General Assembly for 16 years. Contact him at [email protected].