In November of 2017, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) informed the Chesapeake Bay Program of their decision to maintain the existing blue crab management framework rather than establish a new, allocation-based framework for the Chesapeake Bay's commercial and recreational blue crab fisheries. This decision was based on constituent feedback and management agency perspectives, and marks the completion of this outcome. Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC will continue to operate under a management framework that uses female-specific reference points to indicate the sustainability of the blue crab stock. Where female blue crab harvest levels and adult female blue crab abundance fall in relation to these reference points-which were recommended in 2011 and implemented in 2012-will inform blue crab management decisions.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), an estimated 23 percent of the female blue crab population was harvested in 2018. For the eleventh consecutive year, this number is below the 25.5 percent target and the 34 percent overfishing threshold. The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab stock is not depleted and it is not being overfished.
Female Blue Crab Harvest (1990-2018)
The percentage of female blue crabs harvested has continually increased over the last several years and increased from 21 percent to 23 percent from 2017 to 2018. These increases are due to increased bushel limits and extended fishing seasons among three jurisdictions within the last few years. The total 2018 Bay-wide commercial harvest of approximately 55 million pounds was below the 1990-2018 average and similar to the 2017 Bay-wide commercial harvest of approximately 54 million pounds. Recreational crabbers harvested roughly 3.4 million pounds in 2018, similar to the 2017 harvest estimate of 3.6 million pounds.
In its 2018 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, CBSAC—which includes federal fisheries experts, as well as scientists and representatives from state agencies and academic institutions—recommended maintaining a cautious, risk-averse approach to blue crab management. Over the long term, this subcommittee of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (GIT) recommends Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC put procedures in place to provide accurate accountability for all commercial and recreational harvests, as this is an important component of assessing the blue crab stock.
Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC have regulations in place that can be used to respond to changes in the blue crab stock. In 2014, the three blue crab management jurisdictions responded to a depleted blue crab stock by putting additional harvest restrictions in place, largely through lower bushel limits. Maryland increased these bushel limits in 2015 and 2016, and all three jurisdictions extended the crab pot season in 2016. In 2017, Maryland and Virginia announced lower bushel limits and a shorter commercial crabbing season in response to a drop in the abundance of juvenile crabs.
Blue crabs are vital to our region's economy and are an important part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Poor water quality, habitat loss, harvest pressure and predation affect their continued health. Water quality improvements, underwater grass restoration and proper harvest management will be critical to maintaining this valuable resource.