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Del. Bay crabs bounce back
State's early population estimates indicate a good local catch

Sussex Bureau reporter
06/08/2004-Delaware Online

A year ago, commercial crabbers were struggling through an awful summer, and blue crab lovers were suffering from sticker shock.

The hard winter of 2002-03 had devastated the blue crab populations in the Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay, and the harvest was not much better in Virginia or the Carolinas.

But better news appears to be on the horizon this year - for fishermen and consumers.

A state estimate of young blue crabs in Delaware Bay suggests the population that will mature for harvest later this summer is three times larger than it was a year ago.

But don't break out the Old Bay seasoning and the crab-picking knife just yet.

Last year's survey of young blue crabs was well below normal. So the higher numbers recorded this year still bring the young crab population up to an average level, said Rick Cole, the state shellfish administrator.

"We'll have to see" what the season brings, he said.

Delaware's blue crab harvest is the most commercially important segment of the state's fishing industry, typically bringing in $5 million or more at the dock in a season.

Based on reports filed through Jan. 8, last year's commercial crab-pot harvest totaled 1.3 million pounds - about half the harvest of the previous year. That harvest continued a decline that began in 2001.

"We haven't had a really strong year for two or three years." Cole said.

Winter cold, water temperature and wind patterns have a lot to do with crab success or mortality in Delaware Bay.

But some scientists think over-fishing and environmental problems in the bay have contributed to the long-term decline in blue crab stocks.

"All I know is we don't have crabs like we used to," said commercial fisherman Harry E. Smith, of Townsend, who has been crabbing since 1953.

Commercial fishermen in Delaware work exclusively in Delaware Bay and start setting test pots as the water begins to warm.

Smith set his first pots of the season Monday.

Like many commercial fishermen, he's looking now for peeler crabs - crabs that are about to shed their hard shells. Peelers are taken ashore, tended until they shed and then sold as soft-shell crabs.

The young crabs now in the bay will reach market size by late July or early August, when Smith and other commercial fishermen expect to see catches start to rise.

Cole said there are no plans to change crabbing regulations this year. Crabbers are allowed up to 500 pots per boat, and a licensed crabber can set 200 pots at a time.

No commercial crabbing is done in Delaware's Inland Bays. Recreational crabbers are allowed up to two pots each and also can use hand lines and hand traps.

The outlook also appears better this year in the Chesapeake Bay.

A report released last week by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a nonprofit group that monitors bay conditions, concluded there was evidence of a "moderate increase" in blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay.

Even with the increase, the number of mature females remained below the long-term average, though.

The report also concluded that for the first time since 1997, the crab population was not overfished - meaning that more than 65 percent of market-size blue crabs had not been caught.

Ed Riggin Sr., owner of Ed's Chicken and Crabs along Del. 1 in Dewey Beach, said he ended up buying big crabs caught in Louisiana for Memorial Day weekend.

But in a week's time, the crabs have started to come on strong in North Carolina and in Maryland's Miles River.

"It looks like it might be good for a change," Riggin said. "Our cost is the lowest I've seen at this time of year in years. Crabs are very plentiful right now."

3,558 Posts
Thanks for posting this. Right now the crabbing has not been good in the upper bay but we will see what happens. It does not surprise me that they blame the hard winter on the decline of crabs. I have seen the crabs declining in the last 5 years.
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