RD656 - 2023 Annual Report on the Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan

Executive Summary:

The 34th Bay-wide Winter Dredge Survey was conducted from December 2022 to March 2023 by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR). Results indicate the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock is not depleted and overfishing is not occurring relative to reference points established in the 2017 stock assessment update. The total abun-dance of crabs has rebounded from 227 million crabs in 2022—the lowest value in survey history—to 323 million crabs in 2023. This represents a 42% increase in abundance.

The 2011 Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock assessment rec-ommended reference points be set as indices of the spawning stock or the female population. The adult female population in 2023 was estimated at 152 million crabs, an increase of 20% from 2022 and 8% over the geometric mean since female-specific reference points were put in place in 2011. This estimate of spawning-age female crabs is above the threshold of 70 million crabs established by the 2017 Chesa-peake Bay Blue Crab Stock Assessment Update but below the target of 196 million crabs. Since 2008, there has generally been a continuation of management measures by all Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions to conserve the spawning-age female crabs, including an ongoing closure of the Virginia winter crab dredge fishery. The winter crab dredge fishery closure may partially account for above average spawn-ing-age female abundance in eleven of the fifteen years since it began, because closing the winter crab dredge season allows juvenile crabs to be free of fishing pressure during the winter after they mature in fall. Mature female crabs will spawn in late spring and summer of the same year in which the Bay-wide Winter Dredge Survey is completed.

Blue crab commercial harvest from Chesapeake Bay, as reported by the VMRC, MD DNR, and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC), totaled 42 million pounds in 2022. This is a 3% increase from 2021 but is 30% below the mean commercial harvest since 1990. Virginia, Maryland, and the Potomac River accounted for 35%, 58%, and 6% of the Bay-wide harvest, respectively. Commercial harvest in Virginia’s tidal waters has been re-ported through the VMRC Mandatory Harvest Reporting Program as 16 million pounds with an estimated dockside value of $29 million.

In their annual meeting to discuss management responses to the Winter Dredge Survey results, the VMRC, MD DNR, and PRFC agreed to maintain status quo management measures in relation to the regulations enacted in 2022. The Commission voted to extend the fall crab pot season until December 16, 2023, and extend the high bushel limits through October 31; these measures were enacted to increase seasonal economic opportunities within the fishery and were not projected to increase harvest by a significant amount. In addition, the Commission changed the fall and spring low bushel limits for different crab pot licenses to achieve more equitable management across license categories. The crab pot season for 2024 will open on March 17 with low bushel limits in place until May 15. The season for all other commercial crab gears will end October 15, 2023 and re-open April 15.

Conservation of female spawning-age crabs as well as juvenile crabs is the primary management objective to attempt to lessen variability of the blue crab stock abundance. The extensive management measures from 2008 that were implemented throughout the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions have helped to mitigate year-to-year variability in the fisheries that previously resulted in overfishing during many prior years (see Attachment 1). Juvenile crab abundance can vary because of inter-annual differences in the entrainment of crab larvae from the ocean to Chesapeake Bay. This process is subject to natural fluctuations in the prevailing current and wind patterns. Environmental factors including weather con-ditions and predation can influence all life stages of the crab population. Additionally, year to year variation of predators, such as red drum, blue catfish, striped bass, and adult blue crabs, can affect juvenile blue crab abundance.

The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) has recommended a new bench-mark stock assessment for blue crabs. A data workshop is being held in December 2023 and stock assessment completion is expected in 2025.