Back in April, Virginia and Maryland regulators announced that the population, estimated at 460 million crabs, was at its second highest level since 1997, and for the third straight year stood well above the target. The 2010-11 bay-wide winter dredge survey conducted annually by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources indicated that management measures implemented in 2008 to conserve female crabs were working.
And even though the overall population suffered a downturn thanks to unusually cold conditions that killed as much of 31 percent of Maryland’s adult crabs, it still was in better shape than at any point since 1997, officials said. Some 254 million adult crabs survived the unusually cold Chesapeake winter.
The good news continued this week, when NOAA released the 2011 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Stock Assessment. Adult female crabs are more abundant, the NOAA assessment says, and hence the overall crab population is higher, too.
The new assessment, which uses a sex-specific model, also finds that in 2009, the Chesapeake stock wasn’t experiencing overfishing, nor was it overfished. According to NOAA, the bay’s crabs experienced overfishing from 1998-2004 and were considered overfished from 2001-03.
However, there’s one sticking point. The population goal posts have been moved.
The new assessment recommends working toward achieving a sustainable target population of 215 million female crabs and an overall total of 415 million adult crabs. According to a joint press release issued by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the NOAA assessment reveals that the stock was more depleted than originally believed. Hence, it will take longer to rebuild than expected.
Fishery managers had been using an interim target of 200 million total adult crabs in the bay as the threshold of a healthy stock. Overfishing was said to occur if 53 percent of adult crabs were harvested in a year. Now overfishing will occur if 34 percent of the females are harvested in a year.
Virginia may not be able to relax harvest restrictions at this point, says Jack Travelstead, Virginia’s fisheries chief, in the press release. Virginia watermen are wary, as a larger percentage of female crabs reside in Old Dominion State waters.
However, significant changes to existing harvest regulations aren’t foreseen, Tom O’Connell, the Maryland DNR’s fisheries service director, said in the press release. Managers will continue to focus on bushel limits and closures.
The VMRC meets on Aug. 23 to discuss the new stock assessment and vote on whether to close the winter crab dredge fishery for the fourth straight year. And Maryland’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee will meet this fall to consider industry-preferred strategies for addressing female harvests.
Rest assured that Chesapeake watermen will be keeping a close eye what measures regulators propose for the 2012 fishery.