Special Report: Harvesting Trouble

Credit: WAVY/Matt Gregory

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — For the first time in several years, the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay took a big hit.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) reported an 18 percent decline in the overall population. The biggest hit portion of the population was the juvenile crabs — next year’s mother crabs.

On the Lynnhaven Fishing Pier in Virginia Beach, you’ll find dozens of crabbers each summer night. They cast off a crab trap with raw chicken in it and hope to pull up the blue crustaceans that walk on the bay floor. Underneath the pier there are other crabbers wading into the water, like Franchone Dukes.

“They’re not catching too many on the pier,” he said. “So I’m in the water with bait and a string and scooping them up.”

Dukes spent several patient hours wading into the Chesapeake Bay and then coming back to shore with his catch. However, he remembers a time when crabs were more plentiful in Hampton Roads.

“We didn’t even need bait when I was younger, we walked around the perimeter of the Hague and scooped them up and had a bucket in no time,” he said.

It’s just Dukes’ observation. But, a marine resources study showed a major drop in the juvenile crab population from last year.

A study from the VMRC blamed weather, natural predators and over fishing for the drop. In response, the commission put more regulations in place.

This year, the crab season will end on the last day of November. That is several weeks short of last year’s season close. Additionally, the bushel limit for November will be cut nearly in half.

Crabbers say it’s devastating to their livelihood.

“You cut the limit, it would be like a third of your income,” said Kenneth Diggs, a local waterman.

Diggs said his crew works six days a week and sometimes 18 hours day. He said more restrictions just add to the already declining number of crabbers.

VMRC pointed out the restrictions technically won’t cut the harvest season short. The close of the season will now be the same as it was for nine of the last 10 years. In 2016, an abundance of crabs allowed VMRC to keep the season open into December.

The study VMRC looked at showed that juvenile crabs dropped by nearly 50 percent from last year. It also pointed out that adult female crabs grew from last year, but not enough to offset the juvenile drop.

Diggs said that’s a sign any decline isn’t the fault of the watermen.

“I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m saying the watermen have taken enough of the punishment. It’s time to blame it on something other than the watermen.”