Drought Fuels Doubt About Crab Harvest

Maryland watermen and biologists are hoping a productive fall will improve this year's prospects.
Maryland watermen and biologists are hoping a productive fall will improve this year's prospects. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Kristen Wyatt
Associated Press
Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hot, dry weather is hurting more than just farmers' crops. Maryland watermen say blue crabs have become scarce in the peak midsummer period because of warmer, saltier water in parts of the Chesapeake Bay.

The slowdown has put a damper on some Maryland crabbers, but projections show that the state still may equal last year's haul of 28 million bushels if crabbers do well this fall. The spotty nature of this year's catch, combined with higher fuel and bait prices, means that crabs this summer are going for $120 a bushel, up about 50 percent from this time last year.

"It's been kind of a hit-and-miss season," said Shady Side crabber Bob Evans, who has been crabbing in the northernmost Chesapeake because of the warmer water. Typically, he spends July farther south, near Annapolis and the Bay Bridge.

The mid-Atlantic drought, along with high temperatures, makes the bay warmer and saltier than usual. Because crabs prefer a certain salinity, they are going north to the cooler, less salty water, watermen say.

The crabs are also affected by the bay's "dead zone," a pollution-fueled phenomenon whereby low oxygen levels make some parts of the bay inhospitable to crabs and other aquatic life. Some crabs go north; others behave as if they're hibernating by hiding under mud.

"When it gets real hot and dry, they bed down like they do in the wintertime, to save energy," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

He added, "They're not catching a lot of crabs right now" but said crabbers in northern areas of the bay are doing well. Also, he said the waters hold plenty of smaller crabs, which bodes well for the fall and future seasons.

Lynn Fegley, a fisheries biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, said this year's crab season started slowly because of a cold April and the catch remains dicey.

"If you talk to people out there trying to make a living on it, it's very spotty," she said. "It really depends where you are. You can go somewhere and not see much of anything and go somewhere else and have a pretty good day."

Fegley said a strong fall could put Maryland's total catch at last year's levels. Crabbing season lasts through Dec. 15, but crabs typically slow down before then -- hibernating when the water is about 50 degrees.

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