Chesapeake Crab Population Jumped Sharply in 2008

Published July 1, 2009

The Chesapeake Bay blue crab population grew from 280 million crabs in 2007 to 418 million last year, according to wildlife officials in Maryland and Virginia. The population increase is good news for a species whose numbers have been steadily declining.

An estimated 828 million blue crabs populated the Chesapeake Bay in 1991.

New Restrictions in 2008

For the 2008 crab season, Maryland and Virginia wildlife officials instituted more stringent harvesting restrictions, particularly with respect to female crabs. Because female blue crabs produce large numbers of eggs, the population can bounce back quickly when not over-harvested.

While the restrictions led to a very difficult year for area harvesters—federal officials declared the 2008 harvesting season an economic disaster—officials are encouraged by the chances of a long-term population rebound.

Rom Lipcius, a Virginia Institute for Marine Science professor specializing in crab research, says the population increase is exciting.

“The key things are that it’s promising news. It’s a direct response to management. … It’s a positive act by the fisheries, management agencies, by the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the Potomac River Fishers Commission. The other people who should be congratulated on this for their actions were the two governors from Maryland and Virginia, because they said we need to do something drastic now to help the blue crab population.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service supported the efforts with $10 million in federal funds for blue crab disaster relief.

Future Uncertain

According to Lipcius, correctly identifying crab population trends is a process requiring several years. Because blue crab populations historically have been prone to large fluctuations, officials are not certain the 2008 results signal a trend that will continue.

“What the data show right now is an increase. … That survey has shown a substantial increase in population, but it’s not reliable yet in terms of long-term results,” Lipcius explained.

“We need to see an increase in spawning, the number of reproducing females this summer, an increase in the offspring of those females, and then their maturation in another year after that,” Lipcius added. “It’s promising news right now, but we need to wait three more years before we can see the consistency, before we can feel confident it’s going to persist.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.