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New Maryland crab report shows 'encouraging results'

A new survey estimates 323 million blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay in 2023, an increase from last year’s low of 227 million crabs.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Wildlife officials tracking the crab population in Maryland say a new survey shows crabs on the comeback trail following last year's low numbers. 

"This year has been awesome, even all of the old timers I know, they’ve said it’s the best spring they’ve seen in a long time," explained Chesapeake Bay waterman Luke McFadden, "maybe ever in their career."

Last year's Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey found that the number of blue crabs were at the lowest level observed since an annual survey tracking the population began in 1990.

This year's survey, a cooperative effort between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), estimates 323 million blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay in 2023, an increase from last year’s low of 227 million crabs. 

So that signifies good news for local watermen like McFadden, whose industry had its fair share of struggles last season. He hopes that crab consumers choose to support their local watermen. 

"When you choose to buy local seafood, you’re putting food on a fisherman’s family’s table," he explained, "you’re keeping the money here in town and it doesn’t get any more direct to consumer, bay to table than buying crabs from a guy like me."

The number of spawning age female crabs increased from 97 million crabs in 2022 to 152 million crabs in 2023, a substantial increase and well above the management threshold of 72.5 million crabs. Additionally, adult male crabs increased from 28 million crabs in 2022 to 55 million crabs in 2023, according to data gathered from the survey.

It's not all good news, though.

“We are encouraged by the increases in adult crab abundance, but we need to be vigilant given the ongoing low recruitment numbers,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fishing and Boating Services Acting Director Lynn Fegley in a press statement. “We haven’t seen a strong year class since 2019 despite maintaining the spawning stock at a level capable of producing one.”

The number of juvenile crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has been below average for the past four years with the 2023 estimate at 116 million crabs, just a slight increase from 101 million juvenile crabs in 2022. Blue crab reproduction is naturally variable and influenced by many factors such as oceanic conditions, available nursery habitat, predation and other environmental impacts, Maryland DNR said.

The consecutive years of low juvenile abundance prompted the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee to hold a workshop last fall to explore recruitment drivers and begin planning for a new stock assessment.

So what comes next?

The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee will review the survey results for this year and provide their scientific advice for management. Following their advice, DNR will begin discussions with the Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee to provide guidance concerning the course of action for 2023 that promotes the health and sustainability of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population and its fisheries.

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