Crabbing declines as catch shrinks
Blue crabs harvests are far below previous years. Scientists are still grappling with why as watermen struggle to maintain their livelihood.
Low numbers of crabs caught in the Potomac River this summer have led to a drop in the number of watermen trying to catch them, according to William Rice, a commissioner with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
At their September meeting Rice said numbers in May were good due to crabs that over-wintered in the Potomac. But he said there were not as many crabs this year coming into the Potomac from the Chesapeake Bay.
Rice said only 3/4 of the watermen with crab licenses actually crabbed in August.
Robert Boarman is a veteran waterman who chairs the Potomac River Crab Advisory Committee. He told the Westmoreland News he’ll take a financial hit of about $24-26,000 due to the declining crab catch.
“It’s the worse one I’ve seen in the last 25 years and I don’t know what we’ll experience next spring,” Boarman said.
There was only a slight decline in catch in May when watermen took 5,207 bushels compared to a long-term average of 5,224 bushels. But June’s numbers were significantly down by more than half at 7,824 from the long-term average of 14,002. July shrank to 7,740 compared to the long-term average of 17,975 bushels. Preliminary numbers for August show 4,197 bushels compared to the long-term average of 22,435 bushels.
Smaller crabs seen last year did not mature this year, something Rice said should also be investigated.
Boarman said he has spoken with a number of scientists on the issue. Theories as to why the population is down include the rise in population of crab predators such as red drum, blue catfish and striped bass, which are voracious eaters of blue crabs in the bay and waters of Virginia and Maryland. About 2.5 million red drum were caught in the Chesapeake last year compared to 61,000 in 2011.
Boarman said he hopes things will turn around with actions taken by the PRFC to keep crabs in the water.
“It’s been low, really that’s all I know about it,” said Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen’s Association. “This stuff about how many crabs are in the Bay and what’s wrong, I mean there are no crabs anywhere. There are none in the Gulf.”
Earlier this year the annual winter dredge report said the number of recruits, or juvenile crabs, was much lower than previous years. The numbers dropped from a high of 581 million to this year’s low of 111 million recruits.
Earlier this year Jack Travelstead, a commissioner for the Virginia Marine Resource Commission (VMRC) and the PRFC called the dredge report “disappointing,” But “not a disaster and not without precedent.”
He said crab spawning naturally fluctuates and can be impacted by wind, tide, weather and increased predation.
“The scientists and the regulators don’t create the crab population,” said Smith. “The Lord does that.”
In other business, the Commission set a hearing date to discuss fishing licenses for the Potomac. A fee change had been discussed earlier in the year that involved the reciprocity agreement between Maryland, Virginia and the PRFC. Fishing licenses are cheaper to purchase from the PRFC than from either Maryland or Virginia which allows recreational fishermen to fish in the waters of Maryland, Virginia or the Potomac. An increase of individual license from $10 to $15 and pleasure boats from $40 to $50 was approved.
Also included was a non-residential license (for non-Virginia or Maryland residents) at $22.50. One last item, a short term visitor license that would last 10 days would cost $10. If final approval is given this would go into effect on January 1st, 2015.
In sad news Dennis Fleming, Chair of the PRFC, asked for a moment of silence for past commissioner and chair, Joseph Palmer JR. who lost his long fought battle to melanoma on July 11th. Palmer also was a commissioner of the VMRC from 2011 until his death. He was a lifelong fisherman who’s obituary began with the words “From the waters of the Chesapeake to the Seas of the Caribbean, fish will breathe easier but friends will not. The fisherman has cast his last line.” Palmer was 58.
Fleming also read a proclamation thanking former executive secretary Kirby “A.C.” Carpenter for his lifelong dedication to the PRFC. Carpenter retired in June after 40 years at the PRFC. On the 11th at Carpenter’s retirement party it was announced that the PRFC building was being renamed as the Carpenter building to honor his work. According to Fleming, Carpenter was left speechless, an abnormal state for him.
New commissioners S. Lynn Haynie of Virginia and Phil L. Langley of Maryland were introduced at the meeting. One more commissioner is set to be announced by Virginia governor Robert McDonnell.
Oyster season dates for the 2013-2014 dates were set as October 1 through December 31 with hours from Sunrise to 1:00 PM. 2014 dates are January 1 through March 31 with hours of sunrise to 3:00 PM for hand tonging. Hand Scraping dates are November 1 through March 31 with hours of 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM.
The next regular meeting of the PRFC is set for December 6th at 9 AM at the Carpenter building in Colonial Beach. For more information on the PRFC please go to: www.prfc.us.