764 million reasons to smile

Atlantic OceanHurricane Irene (2011)Tropical Storm Lee (2011)

Steamed crabs, cream of crab soup, crab cakes, crab imperial, soft shell crab, deviled crab, corn and crab chowder, crab bisque, crab dip, crab salad, crab fritters, crab ravioli, crab pie, crab quiche — but that's probably enough for the first day.

Pardon us while we drool at the news that the Chesapeake Bay crab population has rebounded. The annual winter dredge survey has projected an estimated 764 million blue crabs bay-wide, the highest crab population estimate since 1993 and a stunning two-thirds more than last year's total.

There are any number of conclusions to draw from this happy news (as well as ones that shouldn't be, given the uncertainties involved). But for a moment, let's all allow ourselves to appreciate the prospect of a more abundant crab harvest and those steaming, Old Bay seasoning-encrusted piles of crustaceans awaiting our picnic tables this summer.

After all, we've earned that pleasure. There has been enough grim news about the Chesapeake Bay, including a most-recent D+ annual report card and the need to put more anti-pollution laws and fees on the books. If restoring the nation's largest estuary calls for sacrifice, then it also ought to involve an appreciation of success as well.

Why are there so many more crabs in the bay this year? There are a variety of factors, but perhaps the most important is that recent restrictions on harvest of the species have ensured that watermen catch no more than about 25 percent of the female crabs.

With more females carrying eggs, the likelihood of a successful spawn increases. Another important factor is the late-summer weather conditions at the mouth of the bay where tiny crab larvae float out into the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, East Coast storms (Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee) may have helped push those larvae back into the bay.

Aside from that, pollution control efforts from storm water management restrictions to upgrade sewage treatment plants might have surely played a part, but how much is hard to say. Poor water quality has clearly hurt crab reproduction. The loss of bay underwater grasses has deprived the species of food and good places to hide while molting. Expanding dead zones (areas that lack dissolved oxygen) in the summer have become a problem for crabs as well.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the rebound demonstrates that the Chesapeake Bay is far from a lost cause. Just as officials in Maryland and Virginia demonstrated two decades ago with restrictions on the harvest of striped bass when the fish was imperiled, a popular species can bounce back if protected from over-harvest.

To their credit, most watermen appear to understand this. The news of improved crab recruitment was not accompanied by a clarion call from the industry to repeal the harvest restrictions — a self-disciplined response that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

It's concerning, though, that the same winter survey that revealed such a favorable crab population also found a significant drop in mature female crabs. There are any number of possible explanations for this — the 2010 spawn was poor so the population began as a smaller number, and the mild temperatures may have caused them to overwinter in shallow areas or other places that scientists don't survey.

Whatever the cause, that circumstance merely underscores the need for caution when it comes to managing the blue crab population. Better to keep modest restrictions in place now than risk a disastrous decline (or a moratorium on harvest) later.

Meanwhile, Maryland's crab lovers can look forward to seeing the younger shellfish mature to harvest size by late summer. Successful winter surveys have always translated into bigger Maryland crab harvests the following season. That raises the prospect of crab feasts in August (and for the smart consumer, in September when demand lessens).

If there's one thing the blue crab has demonstrated, it's that it is one tough, resilient species. One female crab may carry 2 million eggs, and the off-spring mature incredibly fast. That's how a record low crab survey one year can be followed by an unusually high result four years later. If the local variety of two-legged omnivorous mammals protect crab habitat and refrain from consuming too many crustaceans, blue crabs can still flourish in the Chesapeake Bay.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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