Bay’s blue crab stock keeps growing

LEIPSIC — Harvest, population estimates and “juvenile recruitment” data from the state’s 2018 blue crab season all indicate that the bay’s stock is continuing a four-year growth streak.

According to Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC), the crab fishery is already the state’s largest, both by weight brought ashore and revenue generated.

“In general, the Delaware Bay stock of blue crabs is doing really well,” said Richard Wong, a DNREC biometrician. “In the past four years, we’ve seen around 4 million pounds of crabs harvested annually which is a really high level historically.

“Stock abundance is in good shape, and there has been a significant up-tick in juvenile recruitment — young crabs joining the population.”

However, Mr. Wong is quick to note that it’s difficult to say anything with certainty about the estimated 200 million-strong crab population. DNREC has been collecting statistical data on the species for about 40 years and whether the data indicates a sustained long-term growth trend or an ordinary fluctuation remains to be seen, he says.

“There have been short-term increases in the past,” said Mr. Wong. “This may be natural variation or a new regime of productivity. It’s something we’re curious about and will be monitoring closely.

“We’ll have to see how things play out over the next five or 10 years. Since we’ve studied the population since 1978 we’ve seen periods of high and low productivity before.

“For a period of about 15 years from the mid-80s to the late 90s there was high juvenile recruitment as well, but then it disappeared after that. In the 2000s we hit period of really low stock productivity, until the past few years where we’ve seen it climb again.”

Reasons for the longer-term changes in the population aren’t well understood, said Mr. Wong. But weather and water temperature are the strongest predictors of short-term population changes.

Bit of a mystery

“A lot of the population dynamics are driven by juvenile recruitment, but it’s a bit of mystery for us because we don’t know for certain all the factors that control it year-to-year,” he added.

“Climate is certainly a contributor and we know that prolonged low temperatures in the winter cause a lot of mortality.”

Because of this, Mr. Wong speculates that the recent growth in the population may be a result of a trend toward warmer water temperatures and more mild winters.

“Slightly increasing water temperatures may be allowing the crabs to have longer breeding seasons,” he said. “If it gets warmer sooner and stays warmer longer, they may actually have a chance to get an extra spawn, or two, in.

Craig Pugh

They are a short-lived, but highly productive species so females can release millions of eggs per season — a chance for an extra spawn could make a big difference.”

Having pulled his boat, “Hope So,” out of the water for the season, Craig Pugh, Leipsic mayor and professional waterman since the age of 12, agreed with Mr. Wong’s assessment.

“It was a good year,” he said. “The lower part of the bay seemed more productive than the upper portion though in 2018. Usually in the summer, the crabs migrate north in the bay, but I think rainfall this year brought salinity levels down some so they were kept a bit closer to the middle section of the bay.”

Mr. Pugh, a longtime crabber with the capability of deploying up to a maximum of 500 crab pots in the bay at once, says he’s known times of feast and famine.

“In my experience I think our estuary has been very successful with blue crabs for the last 30 years — as long as you’re able to accept some seasonal mortality,” he said. “Regeneration of the juvenile class seems to happen fairly quickly, often bouncing back within two or four years after a high-mortality event.

“Worst year I can remember was the ‘76-77 season. That winter was one of the worst. The catch levels were terrible.”

Ideal nursery for young crabs

Mr. Pugh believes that the Delaware Bay in particular has become an ideal nursery for young crabs in recent years, perhaps feeding the resiliency of the species.

“Water quality has improved since the 70s and 80s due to some pollution controls put into place,” he said. “Bottom grasses hardly existed back then, but since industrial dumping in the Delaware River has slowed down, the bottom growth has come back. At the time, there were zero percent oxygen levels in some of those areas and nothing can live in that. Now, you’ll find at least some parts-per-million oxygen in our bay water. That’s a good long-term development.”

Limiting inland bays, rivers and tributaries to recreational crabbing, rather than commercial, has also helped, Mr. Pugh claims.

“Delaware is unique in this way because most other states allow some commercial activity in their tributaries,” he said. “It seems to me that it’s been very beneficial because the critters have a place to make their babies and grow up.”

The whim of the weather

Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Pugh says the most “destructive force” on the crab population is the whim of the weather.

“The younger, scrappier crabs actually seem to be able to handle big temperature shifts better because larger crabs with more body mass stress the most in low temps and ice,” said Mr. Pugh. “Either way the winterkill can deal a serious blow to the population very quickly. Usually once we see a long stretch of time with temperatures lower than 37 degrees, we start to get concerned.”

Beyond that, Mr. Pugh says some crabbers are starting to worry about effluent — liquid waste or sewage discharged into a water body — coming from bigger cities to the north.

“As the population increases upstream in places like Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton, we’re seeing a lot more effluent, especially storm water runoff, ending up in the bay,” he said. “Algae blooms become a concern with that and more often than before we’re pulling a lot of trash items out of out crab pots when we haul them in. We need to be asking ourselves if it’s something we want to work on. Mostly, if we’re willing to put the infrastructure in place to accommodate population growth. If we’re not, it’ll be a problem for the crab population in the future.”

Not only are crabs the state’s most important fishery, they bring in more money than all other fisheries combined.

“The average value over the past few years has hovered around $6 million in dockside value,” said Mr. Wong. “The next most valuable species is striped bass, which is only averaging around $600,000 annually. So all other fish, crustaceans and shellfish combined don’t bring in what blue crabs do. This is based on around 250 commercial crab licenses and even fewer dredging licenses. However, most of the watermen have apprentices and deckhands working with them.”

Predictably, it’s the most economically important species to Mr. Pugh as well, easily accounting for 50 percent of his annual income, he says. He also harvests oysters and eels, fishes and hunts and even helps collect horseshoe crabs to round out his income.

However, the work and the investment is not for the faint of heart. Operation and reinvestment costs can eat up 60 percent of his gross receipts, says Mr. Pugh.

“We’re constantly struggling with overhead costs,” he said. “Labor, fuel, bait and boat maintenance costs add up quickly. A few years ago, there was a reduction in the menhaden catch — or as we call it: bunker — on the whole east coast. Since we use it as bait, it forced prices up almost 100 percent. At the same time, we were dealing with $4 per gallon gas prices.”

Given the long work hours, seasonal variability in the catch and constant overhead fluctuations, younger entrepreneurs often struggle to make a career out of being watermen.

“The survival rate in this profession isn’t great — younger folks don’t always stick with it so our average age is probably somewhere around 45-55,” said Mr. Pugh. “You have to work really hard and take a lot of big risks. It can bit a bit too risky for young people with families to feed. But for a lot of us, we’ve got a lot of time in learning about the profession and have grown accustomed to the lifestyle — it’s just who we are.”

Though Mr. Wong says the Chesapeake Bay produces many more pounds of crabs in a given year, much of the Delaware Bay’s product is still sold regionally. Anecdotally, Mr. Pugh says an estimated 70 percent of the bays crabs head straight to Maryland despite their local fishery.

“They absorb most of our crabs — and quickly too,” he said. “Some buyers show up from Virginia and a few from New York and New Jersey too. There’s still a fair amount distributed locally — a few folks get bullheaded about marketing their stuff to get a few more dollars per bushel.”

Cultural significance

Though there’s no such thing as data for cultural impact, few would argue the blue crab isn’t woven deeply into Delmarvan life.

Mr. Wong points out that consuming crabs is a well-known “rite of summer.”

“It’s a summer tradition for thousands of Delawarean families — including mine,” he said. “We’ll get a bushel of crabs and sit at the table together and crack and pick them. It’s an indulgence that brings families and friends together. Crabs are a very social meal. Typically the biggest fishery in a state will have a big cultural impact like that on its people — for many, it’s providing a livelihood.”

As if to illustrating the point, Mr. Pugh notes that during the off-season the town of Leipsic borrows about 50 of his currently idle crab pots to stack into a cone shape as a Christmas tree stand-in. It’s decorated with lights, ornaments and many of the cork buoys Mr. Pugh has spent a lifetime collecting.

“The ladies in town decorating this last Christmas were asking for more corks so I dug some old ones out,” he said. “Standing back and looking at it I realized that it was actually kind of becoming a memorial of sorts because each cork represents a certain local watermen by its color and number.

“Many of them have passed on, and I looked at that remembering them — they taught me so much about how to make a living at this. Being watermen has been a way of life in this town for a long time.”

Dredging season for blue crabs is currently ongoing and will continue till March 30. Crab pot use doesn’t start up again until March 1.

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