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Crab comeback?

Reports indicate a good year for blue crabs

Friday, July 30, 2010

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Petey Eastridge and Bobby Abner pose with the 15 bushels of blue crabs they caught Wednesday morning aboard the Brittney Mae. Abner has been running a crab boat for 45 years along with owning and building up Abner's Cove and Marina and the recently rented out Abner's Crabhouse.

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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Billy Swann of Cobb Island unloads seven bushels of crabs outside Captain Billy's Crabhouse in Newburg one day earlier this month.

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Bobby Abner, left, and Donny Eastridge begin unloading Brittney Mae at Abner's Cove and Marina in Chesapeake Beach after a morning out catching 15 bushels of blue crabs.

This could be a banner year for Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

Maryland officials in April forecast the comeback of the blue crab, attributing it to better management practices they hope will be reflected in a similar restoration plan for Chesapeake Bay oysters.

The blue crab population increased by 60 percent from last year, according to a winter survey, and at 658 million was at its highest level since 1997. Last year, the survey estimated 400 million crabs wintered in the bay.

Now some watermen say the summer harvest may be bearing out the rosy predictions.

"It's been looking pretty good. It's possibly as good a year in 55 years" of crabbing, Chesapeake Beach waterman Bobby Abner said.

He rattled off several banner years — 1993, 1987, 1976 — that he also remembers. The year 2010 will surely be added to his list, he said.

"They really stand out," he said of the good years.

Abner said he has 900 crab pots in the water throughout the season. His two sons, Shawn and John, also crab out of Chesapeake Beach.

Abner follows the crabs, starting out with pots off Ocean City early in the season and then moving to areas around Point Lookout and the Patuxent River in late spring. Now he has been steadily moving the pots up the bay, finding great catches in the South River, West River and Herring Bay in recent weeks.

One day earlier this month Abner hauled in 23 bushels; just three of them were females. That's a good catch, he said, and on average for the season.

"The best crabs are yet to come," Abner said, anticipating an even larger rebound this fall based on the number of small crabs he's seen this summer.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he has heard from crabbers that the harvest this year has been good. "We've had a pretty good season so far… There seems to be plenty" of market-sized crabs this summer.

"There definitely is a big increase of little crabs, from one end of the bay to the other," Simns said. He said crabs that range from the size of a person's thumbnail up to just below market size are abundant. Many of them will need one or more sheds to reach market size by this fall, when he and other watermen expect to see an even better haul.

"Of course, there will come a time when we don't have the market" and prices of crabs will fall, he said.

Tucker Brown of Mechanicsville sells razor clams, or soft-shell clams, to crabbers for bait. He hears firsthand how things are going for commercial and recreational crabbers. "There's been some big crabs this year. There's been some nice ones," Brown said.

Brown said he has seen an increase in recreational crabbers using trotlines to catch their own crabs this summer. He said that increase is probably due to the notion that there are more crabs out this year.

Better regs, or just nature's cycles?

Maryland and Virginia worked together two years ago to impose restrictions on harvesting female crabs, which led to more adult female crabs last year and more young crabs this year. The states aimed for a 34 percent reduction in female crab harvests, a goal that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said will sustain the population.

Restrictions on crabbing continued this season, including bushel limits for female hard crabs as well as a few closure periods for commercial female harvest throughout the season.

Recreational crabbers are prohibited from harvesting female hard crabs at any time, but female soft crabs may be kept. Commercial dredging of female crabs during the winter was stopped in 2008.

"Our goal in 2008 … was to reduce the female harvest by a third," said Lynn Fegely, assistant director of DNR fishery service. Survey results indicate that goal was achieved. Fegely said the fishery service did not track whether Maryland or Virginia watermen did a better job following the regulations. "We all took a different strategy to reduce harvest levels."

The Chesapeake Bay crab harvest in 2008 made up more than one-third of the annual U.S. catch, including 24 percent from Maryland waters and 11 percent from Virginia, according to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The state with the largest crab harvest was Louisiana at 26 percent that year.

Even with the restrictions on catching females in place, watermen actually harvested more crabs last season — 53.7 million pounds — than in seven of the past 10 years, yet were able to stay below the target harvest level of 46 percent of estimated crabs.

This is one argument geared to get watermen onboard with the restrictions — that increasing the overall population will provide more crabs for harvest.

Abner said he has been catching "some of the biggest, prettiest crabs we've seen in a long time," and attributes the rebound directly to the new regulations.

"I don't care who you are, we need some kind of management," he said.

The best part of the management plan, Abner said, was prohibiting taking pregnant female crabs from Virginia's waters over the winter.

While he acknowledged the regulations have been hard on many watermen — "They were a little harsh on us, at first" — it was a necessary move to save a fishery that was on the brink.

Sgt. Art Windemuth, public information officer for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, said there were 26 citations and 248 warnings given between June 1 and Dec. 15 last year for closed-season violations involving female crabs. These included violations from commercial and recreational crabbers. He said they will continue to enforce regulations concerning female crabs this season.

Simns is not as quick as Abner to attribute the rebound to the stepped-up regulations.

"I can't say it didn't help a little, but they can't take credit for all of that," Simns said of the state regulations on commercial crabbing put in place two years ago.

He said there is a rebound of blue crabs up and down the East Coast, a result of something much larger than regulations.

"Mother Nature's controlling this whole thing. Man can't control it. They can mess it up, but they can't control it," he said.

Still, Simns is not advocating lifting the regulations just yet, except maybe for the temporary closures on female crabs during the fall. He said the market dropped off significantly after the weeklong closures, hurting the watermen through the rest of the season. Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the blue crab's comeback.

"History has shown us that abundance can change quickly, as evidenced by record 1993 and 1997 levels that were immediately followed by dramatic drops," he said.

DNR officials earlier this month announced they were scaling back one of the restrictions by lifting the ban on female harvests from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4 because of the two-year rebound in crabs. Daily limits would still be in place and watermen would still have to stop harvesting female crabs by Nov. 10 this year.

‘They ain't catching nothing'

The optimism over this season's harvest is not universal. Freddie Clements manages Captain Billy's Crabhouse in Newburg. He said he buys crabs direct from several local watermen, but is having trouble filling his demand this year.

"The local guys, I don't know how they're doing it … They ain't catching nothing," Clements said.

He said some of the watermen will go out from 5 a.m. to noon and only bring in one bushel.

"These guys have been running up and down the river everywhere on the Potomac … They've been fighting them the whole year on the Potomac," he said.

For his restaurant, Clements said he wants good, large crabs only. And while one or two watermen might have a small boom one or two days, for the most part they are having trouble catching many No. 1-sized crabs.

"We hear all these good signs in January and February" from state politicians and DNR officials, he said. And then, they hear the same thing from customers but, Clements said, he has not heard any good news directly from the watermen.

He's had to buy from Eastern Shore watermen a few times already this year and ended up with blue crabs from the Carolinas a couple times when it was really hard to find local crabs.

"I think it's been a tough year. When you need them, you ain't got them," he said. He is holding out hope for a good fall harvest, but noted that the demand usually drops off by then.

Jack Yates, owner of Capt. John's Crabhouse in Cobb Island, described the season so far as "very poor."

He buys crabs from watermen who fish in the Wicomico, Potomac and tributaries in Virginia. "Crabs are really scarce. This is about the worst I've seen," Yates said. "The sizes are OK … they just can't catch many."

While he hasn't adjusted his prices much this year, he is having trouble finding enough to supply takeout customers.

"I don't know what's going to happen" the rest of the season, he said.

Gulf impact

The devastating oil spill from the deep sea well in the Gulf of Mexico may have lasting impacts not only in the gulf but elsewhere, including the Chesapeake Bay region.

"One man's loss is another man's gain," Simns said. "We don't like to capitalize on that, though."

The state watermen's association president said that Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, where much of that state's blue crabs come from, was closed to seafood harvesting in addition to other productive areas in the gulf. "We don't want to see that," he said. "They're watermen just like us."

Maryland crab houses depend on crab meat from the gulf to stay open during the winter, he said. Effects on Chesapeake watermen could be good or bad as the seafood market shifts. Chesapeake Bay oyster shucking houses need to supplement locally caught oysters with ones from the gulf.

Also, a few Maryland watermen catch gizzard shad, or mud shad, during the winter in the headwaters of the region's rivers and sell to gulf watermen to use as bait.

"People don't really realize how important that gulf is," Brown said. It affects waterways around the nation in a number of ways, he said.

"It's going to have a devastating effect" for years to come, Brown said.


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