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Blue Crab Population Slowly Rebounding

Heather Brown, a Maryland state biologist, inspects crabs trapped near Hoopers Island in a study of the condition of the bay's recovering blue crab population.
Heather Brown, a Maryland state biologist, inspects crabs trapped near Hoopers Island in a study of the condition of the bay's recovering blue crab population. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

The boats themselves, propped up and freshly painted, could tell the story.

"Faith" and "Survivor," "Liquid Asset" and "Maybe Baby" were lined up across a dusty boatyard along the Chesapeake Bay.

On April 1, the blue crab season opens, and on Hoopers Island, home to crabbers and fishermen for generations, these names describe the mood: If there is optimism, it is cautious, and if there is work, it will be hard.

The bay's crab population is far smaller than it once was, and crabbers labor under a net of regulations designed to stem the decrease.

"It's what they used to call a crying time," said Joe Hayden, 42, who has pulled crabs out of the water since he was 8. "That's what this job is . . . a crying time."

But after bottoming out about six years ago, the population of blue crabs and crabbers' harvests have tended to grow.

State biologists in Maryland and Virginia are wrapping up the annual winter dredge survey -- a sampling of 1,500 sites in the bay -- which they expect will show a stable, if not growing, population.

"We're going to have another good influx of crabs," said Lynn Fegley, director of the blue crab program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Last year, we had the largest influx of juvenile crabs that we've seen since 1997. . . . We still have that elevated influx of young crabs."

Some attribute the increase to a mild winter and, to a lesser extent, state regulations that limit watermen's access to crabs. At the height of the season in the fall, there were so many crabs that some watermen had difficulty finding buyers, and the abundant supply depressed prices.

"The biggest controlling factor on the crab population is Mother Nature," said Jack Brooks, president of the J.M. Clayton seafood company, a crab-picking plant in Cambridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "We've not had a whole lot of snowstorms or icing of the bay or rivers, and really it's been actually dry. With the combination of all those things, it sets up really, really nice for a good crab season."

The estimate of 487 million crabs in the bay last year does not approach the roughly 751 million of a decade ago. On Hoopers Island alone, several crab-picking houses have closed in recent years. Of the 6,000 licensed crabbers in Maryland, about 1,500 are earning a living from their catch. Other watermen have taken up jobs driving trucks or fishing for scallops in the Atlantic.

By the late 1990s, the dwindling of the crab population had begun to cause real alarm.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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