The Chesapeake is known for its delicious blue crabs, but maintaining a healthy fishery may become more difficult as the water warms.

Each year, when the waters of Chesapeake Bay drop below 54 degrees, blue crabs burrow into the sand to survive. While the crabs are in this dormant state, scientists test hundreds of sites across the bay to make a population estimate.

Thomas Miller, director of the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, says the information is used to set annual blue crab harvest limits.

MILLER: “If we want to be able to manage that fishery so it’s sustainable, so that the next generation of fisherman can also catch crabs, it’s important to know their abundance.”

But Miller says that as the climate changes and water temperatures rise, blue crabs may forgo their winter dormancy for year-round activity. Current estimates predict the Chesapeake will warm enough to prompt this change by the turn of the century.

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That will make it much more difficult to count the crabs, so until new methods are developed, scientists will have to rely on less accurate ways to estimate population size, leaving blue crabs more vulnerable to overharvesting.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media/Justyna Bicz.
Photo: Maryland blue crab (copyright protected).

More Resources
Blue Crab
2015 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey
Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population Shows Modest Improvement
2015 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report
Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay by William Warner

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...