ANNAPOLIS - Maryland's blue crab population reached its healthiest mark in 19 years, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Thursday, as one of the state's signature resources recovers from record low populations just a few years ago.
The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population climbed 66 percent from 2011 to an estimated 764 million crabs this winter, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
It's the fourth year in a row the population has climbed, and juvenile crabs were a big part of the growth -- a record high of 587 million were counted in the Bay, nearly three times as many as the year before.
|Blue crab on the menu|
|Marylanders will soon know the origin of the crab cakes they eat -- whether the crab was caught in Maryland or imported-- at restaurants throughout the state by looking at their menu.|
|The True Blue program, developed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, will identify restaurants that are serving true Maryland blue crabs. The buy-local effort should be started by Memorial Day.|
Maryland officials have set daily catch limits and crabbing seasons to help restore the blue crab population, which had been depleted in recent years. In 2008, blue crabs were at a 19-year low.
"Our conservation measures are working," O'Malley said. "We have reached our goal of a healthy abundance of blue crab."
But environmentalists are worried about female crabs, whose numbers dropped for the second year in a row. But their overall numbers aren't abnormal, and state environmental officials hope the overwhelming amount of juvenile blue crabs will show a growth in the female population by next year, said John Griffin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.
The state will now set its sights on maintaining the population while fishermen try to get more flexibility to increase their hauls. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he's grateful for the work scientists have spearheaded alongside Maryland fishermen.
"If you give Mother Nature a chance, she'll bring everything back full circle," Simns said.
The announcement comes days after a report card issued by the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science gave the Chesapeake Bay a D+ for its heavy concentration of sediments and dead zones -- areas of the Bay where algae growth reduces oxygen levels.
The state has done all it can by limiting the amount of crabs harvested every year, according to Lynn Fegley, deputy director of fisheries services at the Department of Natural Resources. But less crabbing and better water quality are both essential to the recovery of the crab population, she said.
"The question is, what would be the response if we had really good water quality?" Fegley said. "That's something we can't answer right now."