Governor Martin O'Malley today announced the Chesapeake Bay's juvenile blue crab population is at the highest level on record, and the overall blue crab population is at its highest level since 1993.
Joined by stakeholders and elected officials, Governor O'Malley revealed the results of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) annual winter dredge survey at Mike's Crab House overlooking the Severn river.
"Just a few short years ago, the future did not look bright for our blue crab population," said Governor O'Malley. "Our female crabs were being overfished, and our fishery was at risk of complete collapse. Today's announcement marks four years in a row of progress to restore the blue crab. The kind of progress we're making today really only happens when we work together. None of us can restore the blue crab alone -- we're all in this together, and it will take all of us working together to achieve a better future for our crabs, our industry, recreational crabbers and crab-lovers across our State.
According to the survey, an estimated 764 million crabs spent this winter in the Bay, nearly 66 percent more than last year. Juvenile crabs reached a record high of 587 million, nearly triple last year's 207 million. The previous record of 512 million was set in 1997.
"I'm proud to stand and fight for Maryland's watermen who faced a potential disaster to their way of life. I fought to put funding in the federal checkbook to support Maryland's watermen and protect the Bay," said Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee. "The replenishment and return of the blue crab is good news for Maryland's watermen who have been affected by shrinking crab harvests. I will continue to lead Team Maryland in our efforts to protect the Bay and those whose livelihoods depend on it."
The survey results did sound one cautionary note, which was a decline in the number of spawning-age females from 190 million to 97 million crabs. Despite the downturn, the population remains above the safe threshold level. Preliminary estimates of the 2011 female harvest are below the target of 25.5 percent, again confirming that management measures have continued to be effective at constraining the fishery to appropriate levels.
"The drop in abundance of spawning-age females is neither unusual nor unprecedented -- in fact, we expect this type of variation in populations from year to year," said DNR Secretary John Griffin. "While last year's severe storms and the warm winter may have had an impact, we are optimistic that our record recruitment will bode well for next year's adults, both male and female. Meanwhile, it is our job is to make sure that fishing occurs at an appropriate level, which we will continue to do."
Maryland's management system of daily catch limits and closed periods is designed to adapt and ensure that annual crab harvests stay balanced with annual shifts in abundance.
"As we have done in years past, we will work with our stakeholders and our advisory commissions to develop a sustainable harvest level equivalent to last year," said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O'Connell. "The preliminary Bay-wide harvest for 2011 is estimated to be 67.3 million pounds, again confirming that a robust industry can coexist with regulations designed to rebuild a self-sustaining, healthy blue crab population."
Estimates of abundance are developed separately for young of the year crabs, mature female crabs, and adult male crabs. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2012 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.
"It is encouraging to not only see an improving crab population but also a management system that is working," said Bill Goldsborough, director of Fisheries for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We applaud DNR and Governor O'Malley and encourage them to stay the course and continue the science based management approach that has lead to this resurgence in the Chesapeake blue crab."
Through a historic collaboration in 2008, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission took strong coordinated action to reduce harvest pressure on female crabs by 34 percent. At that time, scientists from all three jurisdictions deemed conservation measures necessary as blue crabs suffered near historic lows in spawning stock.
"This fishery appears to be in far better shape than it was just a few short years ago and is one of the most successful fishery stock rebuilding programs ever, anywhere," said Doug Domenech, Virginia's Secretary of Natural Resources. "I attribute that to the actions taken by the Marine Resources Commission, the excellent scientific advice from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the continuing efforts of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources."
DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have conducted the primary assessment of the Bay's blue crab population annually since 1990. The survey employs crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March. Sampling during winter when blue crabs are usually buried in the mud and stationary, allows scientists to develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the Bay.
In 2011, Governor O'Malley and members of the Maryland General Assembly passed bills that increased enforcement authority and penalties for certain egregious violations of striped bass, oyster and blue crab regulations. This year the legislature passed an important measure to increase efficiency, flexibility, and accountability in Maryland's commercial fishing license system and allow for cost recovery of some of the services provided to the commercial fishing industry.
In September 2008, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service responded to Governor O'Malley's request for disaster assistance funding for watermen impacted by the declining blue crab population. With support from Senator Barbara Mikulski and Maryland's Congressional Delegation, DNR received $15 million that extends into 2012 to assist management efforts and mitigate the impacts from the blue crab fishery disaster. In Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010, Governor O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly also directed $6 million in capital funding toward these efforts. In further support of the industry, DNR recently launched a new True Blue labeling and promotion program that will let restaurant-goers know whether their seafood dishes use meat from Maryland blue crabs or less expensive (less tasty) crabmeat from abroad.
Water quality was also a big winner in the 2012 General Assembly. Legislation doubling the Bay Restoration Fund fee will support upgrades to 67 major wastewater treatment plants, upgrades to septic systems, stormwater management grants and the planting of cover crops -- all of which will help dramatically reduce nutrient pollution entering Maryland waterways. A measure requiring the largest jurisdictions to implement a stormwater utility fee will fund stormwater pollution reductions, and The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 requires jurisdictions to develop land-use plans that will encourage growth in existing communities and preserve large tracts of agricultural and forest land in Maryland. A measure reducing the tax burden on Marylanders who inherit family farms will encourage farmers to keep their valuable land in agriculture, instead of selling it to developers.
Governor O'Malley's 2013 capital budget includes more than $211 million in funding to help the Chesapeake Bay, including $38 million in GO Bonds for grants to fund stormwater projects through the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays Trust Fund, and $8 million for oyster recovery