North Carolina’s blue crab season started out on a good note but quickly dropped off when the weather turned cooler in March.

“Things looked good for a few weeks,” said Jeff Styron of Garland Fulcher Seafood Co. in Pamlico County. “Then a cold snap moved in and stayed for most of March.”

According to Styron, conditions were similar in 2017 with a warm front in February, followed by a chilly March.

“When the warm weather hits, the crabs come out,” said Styron. “Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t stay, and the crabs head into the mud. That’s exactly what happened this year again. Unfortunately, when the warmer weather finally comes back, they take a while to venture out again.”

While crabbers are forced to play the waiting game, the markets are optimistic.

“The crab market is strong at the moment. Supply is fair, and demand will be increasing as the weather gets nicer,” said Keith Bruno of Endurance Seafood in Oriental. “Currently, boats are getting about a quarter less than this time last year. But we do expect that to improve.”

When the 2018 season opened, local dealers paid an average of $2.75 for jimmy crabs and $1.75 for females. Selling prices ranged from $2.25 to $3.50.

According to Jason Rock, a biologist supervisor with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, fisheries managers will closely monitor this year’s landings, considering the downward trend in landings. Preliminary data for 2017 shows hard crab landings hit 18.3 million pounds, the lowest figure since 1977.

Hard crab landings for 2018 are off to a slow start with 13,216 pounds reported so far for January and February, compared to 557,459 pounds at this point in 2017.

Crabbers and dealers are hoping for a big bump in production for the second half of 2018 to at least match last year’s totals valued slightly over 20.7 million.

Recent closures and regulations by neighboring states could provide a boost for North Carolina’s production. Maryland and Virginia ended the crabbing season early in 2017, following a report indicating a drop in the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population and Virginia didn’t reopen until March 17, 2018.

In Louisiana, the commercial harvest of female blue crabs in state waters is prohibited from March 1 through April 30 for the next two years.

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Maureen Donald is a freelance correspondent for National Fisherman.

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