Ocean City Today

Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey reveals mixed results

By Greg Ellison | May 11, 2017
Photo by: Greg Ellison Area crab merchants are hoping for another bumper crop this season.

(May 12, 2017) The crab outlook for this season is … mixed. That’s what local restaurateurs have concluded following the 2017 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey of the Chesapeake Bay.

The results of the survey ran along a good news/marginally bad news dividing line. Researchers found that spawning females would increase for the fourth straight year, while juvenile crab populations decreased from the previous year.

The winter dredge survey, which has been conducted annually since 1990, is a joint effort between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Biologists spend the winter season excavating crabs buried in mud from 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay to record their lengths and to develop population estimates.

Morgan Tolley, general manager for A.E. Phillips & Son processing plant on Hoopers Island, said this year’s dredge survey data showed a historic spawning female set.

According to the 2017 findings, the spawning female stock will increase 31 percent from approximately 194 million in 2016 to roughly 254 million this season. This is only the third time in the history of the survey the spawning females exceeded the healthy target level of 215 million established in 2011.

“I figured that from last year because we had so many spawning females last year and, of course, we had a very mild winter,” Tolley said.

Bob Higgins, who operates Higgins Crab House at 31st Street and 128th Street, is pleased with the early indicators of an abundant female crab population.

“Warmer weather absolutely has helped,” he said.

“All in all, I’m cautiously [yet] positively optimistic on this year.”

Albert Levy, general manager of the Crab Bag at 13005 Coastal Hwy., said he rarely gives the dredge report much weight.

“When the season started [on April 1], they started getting a lot of crabs right away and then … the catch dropped off hard,” he said. “They’re getting a lot of what they call picking crabs, or small crabs.”

The dredge survey also reported that the number of juvenile crabs will drop to just over 100 million, down from more than 250 million last year, while the overall crab count will be reduced from approximately 553 million in 2016 to roughly 455 million this year. The highest crab count recorded by the annual dredge survey is approximately 852 million in 1993.

The apparent drop in the juvenile crab population doesn’t trouble Tolley.

“We’re talking about counting little teeny-tiny crabs as big as your thumbnail all the way up to crabs that could be harvestable size,” he said. “I took it with a grain of salt.”

Once again the less than frigid winter weather plays a role, Tolley said.

“It’s been such a mild winter there wasn’t any food, habitat or protection for them,” he said.

Higgins noted that the dredge survey fails to factor in natural predators, such as rockfish.

“You’ll see photographs on social media from time to time of somebody that will cut a rockfish open and it will have 15, 20, [or] 25 one-inch to two-inch crabs inside of one fish,” he said.

From the reports he’s gathered, Tolley feels confident hungry rockfish put a dent in the juvenile crab community.

“There was a big run of large rockfish that came up the bay in early winter when the season was closed,” he said. “That’s a vacuum cleaner … those fish just swam up here uninhibited [and] they got to eat.”

From his previous experience Tolley said, good or bad, the dredge report results are at times inaccurate. For example, although last year’s dredge report indicated a strong juvenile crab population, when the season started the picture had changed, Tolley said.

“The site here in our part of the bay was loaded with juvenile crabs but when spring came around we didn’t see them,” he said. “There’s a lot of factors that go into it.”

Looking at the big picture, Levy feels positive about the quantity of blue crabs in the bay but has concerns about quality size catches.

“I think that there’s an abundance of crabs out there,” he said. “They just haven’t matured to the levels that true crab eaters want.”

The jumbo crab picture in the bay has changed over the last few decades, Levy said.

“Years ago before our time they were getting a big abundance of large blue crabs that everybody loves,” he said. “Now there’s plenty of small crabs out there but the big ones are not around … like we would like them to be.”

Regardless of fluctuations in the juvenile crab population, Levy said an abundance of skilled crabbers make it challenging for the crustaceans to reach optimal sizes.

“The funny thing they really don’t know about crabs is they produce a lot, and there can be a lot of crabs, it’s just they don’t grow up to the size we want because we catch them too fast,” he said.

Despite the prodigious efforts to guesstimate the levels of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, Tolley said waterman wouldn’t know the true harvest picture until after the season ends.

“Mother Nature’s got a lot to do with it and we can’t do nothing about Mother Nature,” he said. “People ask me, ‘Morgan what do you think the crab seasons going to be like,’ and I say, ‘why don’t you ask me in September and I’ll tell you.’”

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