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Blue Crab population is down in the Chesapeake; Maryland issues new harvesting restrictions

Come summertime, the Maryland Blue Crab becomes an iconic part of any plate. But watermen are having trouble finding enough of these crabs.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — With July 4 weekend coming up, many might have plans to head to the beach, to enjoy some Maryland crabs. But a recent survey indicates that there may be fewer of these crabs available. 

"Crabs are scarce," said Bill Scerbo, a board member for the Maryland Watermen's Association.

He said that typically, he might catch a bushel of crabs for every 20 crab pots on a "decent" day. Right now, he said it's more like a bushel for every 100 crab pots. 

“Everybody is saying the same thing," he said. "We’re not seeing any crabs. We’re not seeing a lot of crabs.”

The latest estimate from the Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey found that there were an estimated 227 million crabs currently living in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. This might sound like a big number, but it's actually the lowest level ever recorded in the survey, which first began in 1990. 

Just a few years earlier in 2019, the survey indicated there were close to 600 million crabs in the Chesapeake. 

Credit: Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey
Table of crab population over last 30 years

Allison Colden from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said they saw an especially concerning drop in the number of male Blue Crabs. 

“A record low number of males," she said. "A decline in the females and a continued worrying three-year below-average trend in the number of juvenile crabs seen in that survey.”

To deal with this shortage of Blue Crabs, the Department of Natural Resources has issued new restrictions, including on male Blue Crabs, which previously were unregulated. 

A spokesperson for DNR described the biggest changes as follows: 

Recreational Fishers:

  • "The bushel limit for a boat was reduced to one bushel regardless of the number of licenses onboard."

Commercial Fishers:

  • Shorter Season; Male crab fishing season will close on Nov 30 as opposed to Dec 15.

  • Bushel limits have been set for male crabs during August and September; "This is the first-ever bushel limit on the commercial male fisher."

  • Bushel limits for female crabs were reduced from 2021 limits for the months of July-October

As for what explains the decreasing number of crabs, Colden said that it's likely a number of factors. 

"We think that could be a combination of things," she said. "Like poor water quality, the loss of underwater grass beds which are really important nursery habitats for juvenile crabs, or increased predation from things like invasive blue catfish.”

The decreasing supply of crabs could have an impact on the bottom line, as sellers of these crabs may be forced to raise prices. 

"Until the crabs start biting," said Scerbo. "Prices are going to be high. It's just the way it works." 

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