Maryland Blue Crabs in the Chesapeake Bay

Summer is not complete in Maryland without blue crabs. Blue crabs are known across the country for their distinctive coloring and delicious taste, with around 594 million originating from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. In fact, an estimated one-third of the nation’s blue crab catch comes from the Bay. Although these crabs are not endangered, their population has not yet reached its safe harvest target level, which highlights the need for additional regulation and/or organizational change, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Ensuring that these crabs are protected is not only important for Maryland’s fishing and tourism sectors, but also to help preserve the Bay’s ecosystem that countless species depend on. A MSTEHP fellow could be of great help in providing evidence-based research strategies to the state of Maryland, especially with regards to collating and synthesizing existing data and research on a growing conservation problem.

Photo by David Dibert on

Blue crabs are facing habitat loss due to the increasing number of people and development projects along the bay. In fact, about 100 acres of forest habitat in the Bay are lost each day due to residential and commercial development. This land-use change can be increasingly problematic as it causes excess nutrients from agricultural areas and home fertilizers, treated wastewater, and air pollution to enter the water, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The nutrient runoff increases algae blooms in the Bay, removing oxygen from animals like the blue crab that need it to survive.

Climate change and the resulting rise in sea level are also impacting the crabs in the Bay. This is caused partly by carbon pollution from burning coal, oil and gas, which can increase the sea level up to two feet. This is especially bad for the Chesapeake since the shoreline is affected by the change in climate at a faster rate than the global average as the land in the region is naturally subsiding. With temperatures continuing to rise, such changes will only continue to hurt blue crabs.

Additionally, overfishing in the Bay has resulted in both reduced fish and crab populations. However, thanks to a variety of different organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the target has been switched to both conservation and allocation determining who gets to harvest these resources, promoting the numbers of overall healthy fisheries.

Why are blue crabs so important to the Chesapeake Bay and the state of Maryland?

Preserving the Bay and the blue crabs is important for the area’s tourism, real estate, shipping industries and economy as a whole. In fact, a 2009 Fisheries report by NOAA indicates that the commercial seafood industry (including both fish and crabs) in Maryland and Virginia contributed $3.39 billion in sales, $890 million in income and almost 34,000 jobs to the local economy. These crabs not only provide economic benefits to the state, but they are also crucial in the Bay’s food web. Furthermore, their larvae are part of the Bay’s planktonic community, where they serve as food for filter feeders. Adult crabs serve as food for birds, fish and other crabs. Blue crabs also help clean up the Bay as they are opportunistic feeders, eating freshly dead fish, plant and animal debris. Additionally, crabs eat marsh periwinkles, helping regulate their numbers to ensure a healthy marsh habitat.

What is being done to protect these crabs?

For starters, the Chesapeake Bay Program has a crab management plan that uses minimum catch size and seasonal harvest limits to meet target fishing levels. This organization also hosts a committee to provide scientific advice to fisheries managers and circulates an annual report on blue crab harvest regulations. The National Wildlife Federation is also actively working on the issue, helping launch the Choose Clean Water Coalition to advocate for the bodies of water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, ultimately benefiting the crabs’ livelihood.

How might MSTEHP help provide additional expertise on science-driven policy to protect the Bay’s crabs?

As one parallel example, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) and their science and technology fellows recently worked with the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington on the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health to protect and manage the resources along the West Coast. The CCST offered recommendations on some of the following issues: support for establishment of an Ocean Trust Fund, assessment of shorelines changes, habitat characterization and mapping, and development of web toolkits for policy managers. Thanks to the CCST, policy changes have already been implemented to help preserve the West coast. 

What is the bottom line?

The Chesapeake Bay and its blue crabs play an important role in the state of Maryland. This environment is facing many issues like habitat loss, global warming and overfishing. It is important to protect these blue crabs and the Bay not only for its large economic and tourism benefits, but also for its role in the environment. A MSTEHP fellow could build upon the important work from other organizations and fellowships to provide science-driven recommendations to help the state of Maryland and their beloved blue crabs.

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