GLOUCESTER COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A new study shows that the total number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has declined over the past year, despite harvest limits introduced in 2008 to help buoy the crustacean population.

According to the study, conducted jointly by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the total crab population was an estimated 227 million – lower than any year on record. The results signal a continuation of last year’s trend.

Crab populations have declined over the last 3 years, despite restrictions on harvest totals in both Maryland and Virginia. (Chart courtesy of Maryland DNR)

VIMS and the DNR estimated blue crab populations by dredging 1,500 square areas scattered throughout the bay and counting the number of crabs they find.

Special attention is paid by researchers to two types of crab: “spawning females” and the “young-of-the-year.”

Spawning females are all female crabs larger than 2.4 inches across, which have the potential to lay eggs in the coming year. State law in both Maryland and Virginia sets strict limits on the number of female crabs that can be harvested, and Maryland bans the harvesting of “egg-bearing female crab known as the sponge crab” altogether.

Young-of-the-year, on the other hand, “form the backbone of the recreational and commercial fisheries in the late summer or fall” because they make up a large part of the crabs that will be harvested.

The population of spawning females did improve after management programs were started in 2008, but recent data has been cause for concern. (Chart courtesy of Maryland DNR)

This year’s numbers show that while there was a small increase in the number of juvenile crabs, the total crab population and the number of spawning females both fell. While the number of spawning females remained above the recommended threshold, the results were still a cause for concern to some.

Chris Moore, a scientist with the non-profit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said, “The results of this year’s survey continue a worrying trend for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay region.”

“Although juvenile population estimates can vary greatly from year to year,” he continued. “The 2022 results are the third year of below-average numbers in this segment of the population.  These reduced abundances highlight the need to continue to protect adult females in order help ensure better numbers in the future.”

The Maryland DNR announced their annual catch limits for female crabs, which go into effect from April to the end of June, before the results of the survey were released. The limits were virtually unchanged from the previous year’s regulations.