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 17% of the female blue crab population was harvested in 2019. For the twelfth consecutive year, this number is below the 25.5% target and the 34% overfishing threshold. The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab stock is not depleted and it is not being overfished.
Female Blue Crab Harvest (1990-2019)
The percentage of female blue crabs harvested decreased from 23% to 17% from 2018 to 2019. While this is a decrease, it’s important to note the decline may have been a result of above-average recruitment, or the number of age 0 crabs. High recruitment results in a greater estimate of total blue crab abundance in the Bay, but the smaller juveniles are not harvested within the fisheries. The percentage of female blue crabs harvested is calculated using the number of females removed by fishing divided by the total number of female crabs in the population, and not the total number of harvestable females. This means the percentage of female blue crabs harvested decreases when there is above-average recruitment.
The total Bay-wide commercial harvest rose slightly from 55 million pounds to 61 million pounds from 2018 to 2019. This may have been a result of loosened harvest measures in place during 2018. Recreational crabbers harvested roughly 3.8 million pounds in 2019, similar to the 2018 harvest estimate of 3.4 million pounds. Combining the commercial and recreational harvest, approximately 64.7 million pounds of blue crabs were harvested from Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries during the 2019 crabbing season.
In its 2020 Blue Crab Advisory Report, CBSAC—which includes federal fisheries experts, as well as scientists and representatives from state agencies and academic institutions—determined that substantial changes in management are not necessary. Over the long term, this workgroup 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.