RD428 - The 2015 Virginia Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan

Executive Summary:
Results from the 26th Bay-wide Winter Dredge Survey, conducted from December 2014 to March 2015 (Attachment I) by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, indicate the blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring. The 2014-2015 Winter Dredge Survey estimates of abundance of all size classes of crabs was 411 million crabs, and this total abundance represents a 38% increase from the 2013-2014 Bay-wide Winter Dredge Survey but is below the long-term (1989-90 – present) average of 454 million crabs. The most recent abundance of juvenile crabs enumerated from this winter survey was 269 million, and is slightly greater than the long-term survey average of 261 million juvenile crabs. The importance of the juvenile crab surveyed in wintertime is its contribution to the following late summer and fall harvest when it has recruited to harvestable size and its contribution to the subsequent year’s May and July-August spawning periods. The number of overwintering female crabs that could potentially spawn (if not harvested prior to the spawning seasons) in 2015 was 101 million. This was an improvement over the 2013-2014 survey estimate of 68.5 million which was considered a depleted spawning stock. However, 101 million potential spawners is below the long-term average of 115 million potential female spawners. The importance of the mature female crabs is their contribution to the spawning events in late May and July – August of the same year the Baywide Winter Dredge Survey is completed. These crabs also are important to the spring and early summer harvest, as a high proportion of the Virginia commercial and recreational harvests consist of female crabs.

Year-to-year variation in abundance of blue crabs can be expected as a result of the effects of environmental influences, especially for early life stages of crabs. Juvenile crab abundance can vary because of inter-annual difference in entrainment of crab larvae from the ocean to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Environmental factors including weather conditions and predation can have an effect on all life stages of the crab population. Conservation of female spawning-age crabs is the primary management objective to ensure variability of the blue crab stock abundance is moderate. Since 2008, there has been a continuation, by all Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, of management measures that conserve the spawning-age female crabs. The number of spawning-age female crabs estimated in 2015, as 101 million, increased 47% from the 2014 estimate of 68.5 million. This increase may be partly due to management measures, as fishery managers from the three Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions enacted spawning conservation measures to protect a portion of female spawning-age crabs and increase spawning stock potential by reducing the harvest of all crabs by 10%. This reduction in harvest for all blue crabs not only protects spawning-age females, but also protects some juvenile blue crabs that will contribute to the 2016 spawning stock.

In 2015 the Commission essentially maintained management measures implemented in 2014. This management framework allows conservation of spawning-age female blue crabs in the spring prior to spawning and a portion of juvenile female crabs for the next year's spawn. Maintained measures include reduced crab pot bushel and vessel possession limits for specific time periods and a season closure for all other crab gear. The reduced crab pot bushels limits extend from July 5, 2015 through July 4, 2016 for all crab pot license categories. This time period allows the Commission to review two winter dredge survey results for any needed adjustments. The Commission also closed the winter crab dredge fishery season for eighth consecutive season to allow for continued rebuilding of the spawning stock biomass.

Virginia crab and oyster industries that benefitted from disaster relief funds initially provided in 2008 by the Department of Commerce for the declared Fishery Disaster in the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fisheries continue to benefit today. The 2008 Disaster Relief Fund has provided various crab industry members (harvesters, buyers, and processors) negatively impacted by poor crab stock conditions during many years, through 2007, a source of employment. These funds have provided an opportunity to work in resource or habitat enhancement projects. The total amount of funding from the Disaster Relief Fund was $14,995,000. All of the six project areas detailed in previous reports have been completed.

Two projects currently supported by the Fisheries Restoration Grant Program focus on the commercial crab fishery. One of these, an effort to prevent juvenile flounder bycatch in crab pots, is in its second phase. The other project is directly focused on crabs, reducing mortality of blue crabs during the molting stage of soft crab production.