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Part 2: Where did all the crabs go? What about the predators?

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series about where all the crabs have gone, something people ask every time they go looking to supply crabs for their crab feast.

The facts about the predators are as follows: Striped bass and red drum love to eat whatever they can find swimming along, including baby crabs. However, numerous studies have shown that striped bass have a preferred food that is not crabs. Any guesses to what it is? Menhaden.

During the 2011 year, the young of year striped bass numbers were the fourth biggest on record. They eat a lot. Keep that in mind.

Then during the 2012 year, we had an unreal surge in puppy drum numbers. These fish are long-lived fish, but have been struggling for years. In fact, Virginia has had catch restrictions on them since the 1950s. John Bull put it well when he pointed out that, “The question is whether this is the start of a new trend, or if it is a one-time abnormally large reproductive year class that spawned a couple of years ago. Either way, these puppy drum should be reaching keepable sizes next year, which should greatly please recreational anglers.”

Some of the puppy drum have already reached keepable size, and anglers are happy to get these tasty fish. Virginia has seen some of the best red drum fishing for decades the past few years.

However, with that comes a trade-off. Certainly red drum do like to eat crabs. Many watermen are calling for officials to open up the creel limits on them and cut their numbers.

Remember what I said about this being complicated and with several variables to consider? Keep in mind that loss of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) before we start squawking for more red drum and/or stripers to be taken.

There is no doubt that both have eaten a load of crabs. However, this is OLD news. Watermen have been cutting open fish and finding loads of baby crabs in them for a long time. This is not the first year it has happened, and nor will it be the last.

Let’s back up a minute and look at the big picture. First, I want you to take a mental trip to southern Louisiana. They have arguably the best red drum fishing in the nation. They also have HIGH numbers of shrimp and crabs. All can coexist in high numbers. The habitat and balance is right. The ecosystem is rich. Perhaps we need to find out what our ecosystem is lacking.

Gary put it best when he stated that we possibly experienced a perfect storm of sorts with the loss of habitat and the onslaught of predation due to an unpredictable surge in the red drum and striped bass numbers at the same time.

I wonder if we loosened up the limits on red drum and striped bass, if it would really solve the problem. I suspect it would bring back the crab numbers temporarily, but would we still struggle to keep the crab population up with so little SAV to allow them to hide in and grow? Or would they crash again with the next big recruitment of predators?

Do we want low striper and red drum numbers to have a slightly better crab fishery that we struggle to keep, or maybe we could look at the whole picture and try to have both?

Maybe if we found ways to restore the habitat for crabs, many species would benefit? Maybe we need to back up even further and ask ourselves about other species, and what we can do to manage and balance or restore the whole ecosystem.
Is there a concern about the crab population? Yes. Can we do something about it? Yes.  Will they bounce back? The evidence shows that they are very resilient, and if the environmental conditions present themselves, they can bounce back in a big way.

Keep in mind that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources,  the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Pax River Fisheries Commission have all worked together to create the right management decisions concerning our female crab harvest to allow for a good year class and reproductive success. Even with the low crab harvest, there are enough female crabs out there to turn this around. As pointed out on the graphs at http://stat.chesapeakebay.net/?q=node/128, there are management triggers in place to save them, if we cross a threshold that requires action.

As a matter of fact, regional agencies have agreed to cut female harvest 10%, which is occurring without having reached the threshold where action would be REQUIRED. We simply need the right environmental conditions to see the crabs come back coupled with good management plans. One good thing is that we have not yet had any major storms this fall cut across the Bay. If we make it through without one, that will certainly help the crabs and the SAV.

Mark Fike

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