Health of Chesapeake Bay gets mixed reviews -- Gazette.Net


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For Maryland’s beloved body of water, the Chesapeake Bay, it was a week marked by stark highs and lows.

On one hand, the Bay is experiencing a baby blue crab boom, according to scientists who estimated the population of juvenile crabs is the highest since such estimates began in the 1950s.

On the other, an annual report card, released early in the week by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, downgraded the Bay’s health from a C-minus to a D-plus. The reduced health grade was caused largely by stormwater runoff and a hot summer, scientists said.

But Thursday, state officials, including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), focused on the crab revival.

Based on the annual dredge survey at 1,500 sites throughout the Bay from December through March, the blue crab population has risen to its highest level since 1993, officials said.

And extrapolations from the survey put the number of juvenile crabs in the Bay during the past winter at 587 million — almost triple the estimate for the winter before — and the crab total at 764 million, a figure 66 percent higher.

Still, survey estimates also found the number of reproductive-age female crabs dropped from 190 million to 97 million. O’Malley, though, said the overall population increase “marks four years in a row of progress.”

A variation in the numbers of spawning-age female crabs is not unusual and the most recent figure, which probably was reduced by low reproduction in 2010, remains above the safe threshold, said Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin and scientists from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who joined O’Malley for a news conference at Mike’s Crab House outside Annapolis. They added the number of spawning-age female crabs is likely to increase because reproduction was better in 2011.

A tropical storm and hurricane last year might have helped boost crab numbers, because currents and winds likely pushed them into the Bay from its mouth at the Virginia capes, where females release their spawn, said Bill Goldsborough, the foundation’s director of fisheries.

O’Malley said he appreciated the cooperation of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and former governor Tim Kaine (D) in conserving female crabs.

And O’Malley said much of the improvement was “because of a different set of better choices” state officials and watermen made to help bring back fisheries after 2007, when surveys showed populations at their lowest level in 19 years.

Preliminary estimates for last year’s Bay-wide crab harvest were about 67.3 million pounds, and Maryland is not looking at major changes to catch limits and closed periods in the coming year, said Thomas J. O’Connell, DNR’s director of fisheries.

“It shows that good science-based fisheries management works,” said Kim Coble, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“It goes to show you that if you give Mother Nature a chance, she can bring everything back,” said Maryland Watermen’s Association President Larry Simns.

Hiring watermen to work with scientists when their catch was curtailed helped, and “it’s important that they listen to each other,” Simns said.

The number of rockfish, which feed on crabs, does not appear to have declined in the Bay, scientists and watermen said.

Soon, a new “true blue” label will be used in Maryland restaurants to let diners know if the crab on the menu came from the Chesapeake Bay, said Setev Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for DNR.

Now, most of the crabs on menus in the state are imported, Vilnit said.

mhyslop@gazette.net