After reaching record-low numbers last year, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is showing some signs of improvement in the 2023 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey results released last month.
This year’s survey estimated total crab abundance at 323 million. That compares to the 227 million estimated in 2022, the lowest in the survey’s 33-year history.
The adult female crab population increased when compared with last year. While juvenile crab numbers improved slightly compared to 2022, the juvenile population remained below average for the fourth year. Male crab numbers showed only a slight improvement from last year’s all-time low numbers. Harvest levels for male crabs exceeded the conservation benchmark for the second consecutive year, raising concerns about whether such levels of exploitation could be sustained.
The Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Maryland Department of Natural Resources conducts this annual survey of the population of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Covering more than 1,500 locations, the winter dredge survey is one of the most comprehensive studies of any species in the Bay, dating back to 1990. It is conducted jointly by Maryland and Virginia from December through March.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore issued this statement:
While this year’s numbers show some signs of recovery in the Bay’s blue crab population, there is still plenty of cause for caution. Because the blue crab population fluctuates annually due to a variety of factors, we hope the improvements observed this year continue over the long term.
The recent decline in the Bay’s underwater grasses is likely contributing to low blue crab numbers, as well as pollution and predation by invasive blue catfish. Long-term recovery of the Bay’s blue crab population will only be possible through continued wise management of the fishery, combined with actions to improve water quality and address predation from invasive species in the Bay.
Due to continued low numbers of male crabs, both states should, at a minimum, maintain measures put in place last year that sought to protect male crabs. States should also consider additional actions, including pot tagging, which assists in the enforcement of blue crab fishery regulations. Although both states currently have limits on the number of pots watermen can set, these numbers are largely unenforceable, leading to numerous concerns about the amount of crabbing gear in the water. Pot tagging would help the states enforce these limits.