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Our Blue Crab Population

How could losing 147 million sooks be healthy?

    Good news is scarce these days, so I was relieved when I saw Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ results of the 2018 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey.
    But I did a double-take when I read in the report,  “Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population Healthy.”
    I was confused. Expecting to see the basis for the claims of health, I came upon the revelation of a 42 percent plunge in spawning female numbers. Wasn’t that seriously unhealthy?
    When, for the first time ever last year, the number of females reached the target level for healthy species reproduction, DNR celebrated. What had changed in a year? Wasn’t female abundance important any more? Aren’t spawning females key to growing and maintaining the overall population? How could losing 147 million sooks be a positive health indicator?
    Next I read that adult crabs were decreasing, too. We’d lost 23 percent — that’s 84 million crabs — in a year. Claims for a healthy crab population seemed to be getting more spurious.
    I was momentarily heartened when I read of a 34 percent increase in juvenile recruitment — until I recalled that last year’s juvenile counts were in the basement. Thirty four percent might not amount to much.
    By now, I suspected not-so-good news was getting a rosy package— not suprisingly as this is an election year.
    I found myself seeing the report as one more troubling signal that the commercial fishery may again be gaining political sway over species consideration. Among earlier troubling signs was the abrupt firing of Brenda Davis, the respected and successful manager of the department’s blue crab program. Rumor was that she had rebuffed a handful of watermen demanding the legal size of blue crabs be lowered by a quarter of an inch.
    That firing sent shock waves through the department ranks, already nervous after the sacking of some effective and popular fisheries program managers the past two years, again allegedly due to commercial displeasure.
    Then came the kicker. As I prepared a final draft of this column, the department published the annual Female Hard Crab Catch Limits for commercial crabbing based on the results of the 2017-2018 Winter Dredge Survey.
    Comparing these limits to last year’s, I hoped to see a reduction in female harvest numbers reflecting the severe winter mortalities. Yet this year’s limits were the same as last year’s — despite that 42 percent population drop. Yes, changes could come later in the season, post October 31 — just at the onset of cold weather, which is never easy on crabs.
    Arguably, but just barely, crabs could absorb another year of these now highly optimistic harvest limits. Unless, that is, we have another poor spawn or another severe winter. In that case, our beloved blue crabs may slip back into crisis, as they so often have. But the elections will be over by then.