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#06-335 December 11, 2006

Blue crabs recovering from drought decline

The 2005 blue crab Coastal Resource Report update, published by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, indicates the population is recovering from the decline during the drought of 2001.

The Coastal Resource Reports informs the general public of the status of popular recreational species and represent cumulative efforts of S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) biologists’ research, surveying, and sampling analysis over the course of the year.

“South Carolina’s blue crab stocks appear to be in better shape than a few years ago; during and shortly after the 1998-2002 drought,” said Larry DeLancey, DNR biologist. “Severe drought conditions throughout the Southeast caused a shift in salinity regimes and the distribution of crabs. Crab numbers were low then, and the crabs went further upriver than normal, creating crowded conditions near the legal fishing line for commercial crabbers competing for the valuable crustacean.”

In South Carolina, blue crabs predominantly are harvested both recreationally and commercially with crab traps, also referred to as pots. The commercial fishery comprises one of the industry’s primarily targeted species, representing around 10 percent of the total value of all commercial landings. Historically, average annual landings within the commercial industry have been around 6 million pounds per year since 1979. The 2005 report notes that landings were just over 4 million, which is below the long-term average, but similar to landings trends since 2002. The decline is in part due to the reduction in market price during the fall season.

In 2004-2005, around 33,000 crab pots were licensed in South Carolina, a slight decease from the previous year’s assessment. A Commercial Saltwater Fishing License, Vessel Decal and Gear License are required to set more than two traps or pots since the regulatory inception in 1997.

Recreational crabbing does not require a Saltwater Recreational Fishing License for setting less than two pots. A study conducted in 2005 among licensed anglers indicates that 28 percent of those surveyed participated in recreational crabbing.

“The catches have improved since 2003, and according to the 2005 DNR fall potting survey, there haveBlue crab been notably better results,” DeLancey said. “Low market prices, however, remain a problem for the commercial crabbing industry, more so than the supply of crabs.”

During the year, around 67,000 pounds of softshell crabs, or peeler crabs, were landed, exceeding the figures from the previous three years. The landings increase was minimal compared to the increase in total value for the softshell crab fishery, which was among the highest noted since 1979.

Overall, the blue crab population appears to have recovered from the low levels observed during the prolonged drought several years ago, as DeLancey noted. This recovery in population, however, still falls short of the long-term average as indicated by DNR fishery independent sampling data.                       
Dr. Elizabeth Wenner, DNR senior marine scientist and coordinator of the crustacean monitoring survey for the state, said: “Blue crab population abundance can fluctuate from year-to-year or over a period of several years. Such fluctuations occur because physical, chemical, and biological factors can strongly influence the number that survive.” Blue crab populations are known to be cyclic, according to Wenner, meaning that five-year and longer cycles have been identified. Wenner also found no change in the basic life history of the blue crab as a result of the drought.  The crabs move in response to saline conditions of the water. DNR surveys indicate that numbers of mature females who spawn the larvae of the next generation of blue crab are at a good level for maintaining the population.

Proposed legislation represents a response to public concern over the blue crab population status. Among the proposed legislative changes are: limiting new license sales until the total number of crab pots has been lowered to a target number, a one-bushel per person per day recreational limit, a separate peeler pot license, and an experimental trotline fishery in designated areas during potential future droughts.     


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