The history of Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab (Callinectes sapidus):
fisheries and management
Cluney Stagg1 and Marguerite Whilden2
Fisheries Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
580 Taylor Avenue, Tawes B-21, C-22
Annapolis, MD 21401, USA
ABSTRACT. Major blue crab fisheries have existed on the Atlantic coast of the United States for at least 100 years,
and on the Gulf of Mexico coast for more than 50 years. From 1990 to 1994, reported landings averaged more than 96
million kg per year, with a reported dockside value of more than $200 million. Until about 1950, Chesapeake Bay
accounted for over 75% of the total reported U.S. harvest of blue crabs, but less than 50% over the last two decades.
The United States blue crab fishery is made up of hundreds to thousands of small-scale fishermen. The commercial
fishery has a hard crab component and a soft crab (recently molted) fishery. There is also a substantial recreational
(casual) fishery for blue crabs. Since the 1950s, crab pots have accounted for the largest proportion of reported land-
ings. Other major gears include the trotline, crab scrape and crab dredge. U.S. blue crab fisheries have undergone
periods of low abundance. Changes in fishing effort and power, environmental conditions, ecological interactions and
market forces have been hypothesized as causative factors. Management measures in the Chesapeake Bay blue crab
fisheries have included size and life stage, season, and gear limitations, as well as entry restrictions. An historical
perspective should be taken in the interpretation of the recent decline in reported harvests. A 1997 stock assessment
concluded that Chesapeake Bay blue crab stocks were fully exploited but in no current danger of recruitment overfish-
Key words: fisheries, management, blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, Chesapeake Bay.
Perspectiva histórica de la pesquería y del manejo del cangrejo azul
(Callinectes sapidus) en la Bahía de Chesapeake
RESUMEN. Importantes pesquerías de jaiba azul han existido en la costa Atlántica de los Estados Unidos por lo
menos durante 100 años, y en la costa del Golfo de México por más de 50 años. Desde 1990 a 1994, los desembarques
informados promedian más de 96 millones de kg por año, con un valor playa de más de US$ 200 millones. Hasta cerca
de 1950, la Bahía de Chesapeake contribuía sobre el 75% del total de la captura de jaibas azules informada para
EE.UU., pero menos del 50% en las últimas dos décadas. La pesquería de jaiba azul de los Estados Unidos está
conformada por cientos a miles de pescadores artesanales. La pesquería comercial tiene una componente de jaibas
duras y una pesquería de jaibas blandas recién mudadas. También existe una importante pesquería recreacional (ca-
sual) de jaibas azules. Desde los años 50, el uso de trampas para la captura de jaibas han contribuido en mayor
proporción a las capturas reportadas. Otros artes utilizados incluyen la “trotline”, rastra de jaibas y draga. Las pesquerías
de jaiba azul en EE.UU. han tenido períodos de baja abundancia. Cambios en el esfuerzo y poder de pesca, condiciones
ambientales, interacciones ecológicas y fuerzas de mercado han sido hipotetizadas como factores causales. Las medidas
de manejo de las pesquerías de jaiba azul en la Bahía de Chesapeake han incluido limitaciones de la talla y ciclo de
vida, períodos de pesca y limitaciones a los arte de pesca, así como restricciones al ingreso. Debe tomarse una perspectiva
histórica en la interpretación de la reciente declinación en las capturas registradas. Una evaluación de stock realizada
en 1997 concluye que los stocks de jaiba azul de la Bahía de Chesapeake están completamente explotados pero no en
actual peligro de sobrepesca por reclutamiento.
Palabras claves: pesquería, manejo, cangrejo azul, Callinectes sapidus, Bahía de Chesapeake.
1 Present Address: P.O. Box 673, 12 Cold Springs Road, Angwin, CA 94508.
Invest. Mar. Valparaíso, 25: 93-104, 1997
94 Investigaciones Marinas
The intent of this paper is to recount the history of
blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, fisheries and man-
agement in the Chesapeake Bay region and to briefly
examine other United States blue crab fisheries. In-
formation on reported landings and fishing effort is
included, as well as an accounting of specific man-
agement actions taken over the course of more than
Brief life history
The blue crab is found from Nova Scotia to Uru-
guay (Rathbun, 1896; Milliken and Williams, 1984),
occurring in rivers, sounds, and near-shore waters
of the Atlantic. Blue crabs are fished commercially
and recreationally in the United States from south-
ern New England to Florida and along the Gulf coast
The blue crab population in Chesapeake Bay
is considered to be a single stock, and is distributed
throughout the Bay and its tributaries (Rugolo et
al., 1997). Males are generally found in areas with
lower salinity levels than females and most mating
occurs in brackish mid-Bay waters. Mature females
move south to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in
late summer and fall where spawning occurs from
May to September of the following season. Larvae
are transported out of the bay along the coastal shelf
and then back into the bay (McConaugha et al.,
1983; Johnson et al., 1984; Johnson, 1985; Johnson
and Hess, 1990).
Conventional wisdom has assumed that blue
crabs in Chesapeake Bay live to a maximum of three
years (Van Engel 1958; Milliken and Williams,
1984). In the course of recent Chesapeake Bay Stock
Assessment Committee (CBSAC) research (Rugolo
et al., 1997), review of the literature revealed evi-
dence of blue crabs attaining an age of at least five
years, based on a North Carolina tagging study
(Fischler, 1965). Based on that study and other un-
published tagging data, the CBSAC stock assess-
ment assumed a maximum theoretical age, under
virgin stock conditions, of age eight.
Carapace width modal analysis and laboratory
rearing studies have led most researchers to assign
approximate age classes as follows: Age 0 class-0
to <60 mm, Age 1 class-60 to <120 mm, and Age
2+ class(es)->120 mm (Rugolo et al., 1997). De-
finitive growth studies do not exist. Prior to the last
few decades of increasing fishing effort, male blue
crabs were routinely captured up to 180 mm cara-
Because there are obvious morphological dif-
ferences between immature and mature female
crabs, reproductive maturity in female crabs can be
determined by visual inspection. Based on an ex-
amination of 6,500 crabs few mature individuals
were observed at carapace width less than 100 mm,
and essentially no immature individuals were as-
sumed at widths greater than 140 mm (Rothschild
and Ault, 1992).
Overview of the fishery
Blue crabs were harvested and cultured for local con-
sumption from colonial times (Churchill, 1921).
Since crabs were not easily preserved and trans-
ported, a wide market could not be established. Ice
and faster transport allowed for a broader regional
market. The soft crab (or molting crab) first gained
attention, as a luxury food, and by 1880, a directed
commercial fishery for blue crabs had begun in the
Chesapeake Bay region (Churchill, 1921), which has
subsequently spread throughout its range in North
The United States blue crab fishery has many
components, but in each region, it is a fishery made
up of hundreds to thousands of small-scale, some-
times artisanal, fishermen. The commercial fishery
is usually separated into a hard crab segment and a
peeler and soft crab fishery, the latter component
accounting for a small percent of the reported land-
ings. Hard crabs are sold in the “live-trade” market
to restaurants and directly to consumers, to proces-
sors where crab meat is prepared for resale, and in
overseas markets. Soft crabs are sold live or frozen
within the United States and in export markets. There
is also a substantial recreational (casual) fishery for
Since the 1950s, crab pots (introduced in the
1930s) have accounted for the largest proportion of
reported landings. Other major gears include the
trotline, crab scrape and crab dredge. The balance
of this paper will discuss the evolution of blue crab
fisheries in the United States, particularly focusing
on Chesapeake Bay crabbing gears, regulations and
Mandatory reporting of commercial landings re-
placed voluntary reporting in Maryland in 1981, and
in Virginia in 1993. Major blue crab fisheries have
existed on the Atlantic coast of the United States
for at least 100 years, and on the Gulf of Mexico
coast for more than 50 years. From 1990 to 1994,
reported landings averaged more than 96 million
kg per year, with a reported dockside value of more
than $200 million. Until about 1950, Chesapeake
Bay accounted for over 75% of the total reported
U.S. harvest of blue crabs. Since that time there has
been a slow decline in the region’s market share to
an average of less than 50% and to as low as about
35% over the last two decades.
As reported by the United States National Ma-
rine Fisheries Service (NMFS), regions other than
the Chesapeake Bay began to develop their blue
crabs fisheries around 1945 (Fig. 1). The NMFS has
historically defined reporting regions as follows:
Middle Atlantic (New York, New Jersey and Dela-
ware), Chesapeake Bay (Maryland and Virginia),
South Atlantic (North and South Carolina, Georgia,
and Florida) and Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Alabama,
Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas). By 1950, the
South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions were
beginning to bring considerable quantities of blue
crab to market. Although of some regional impor-
tance, the Middle Atlantic states contribute a rela-
tively small amount to the national total. From 1990
to 1994, 6.1%, 36.5%, 28.2%, and 29.2% of total
U.S. blue crab landings were attributed, respectively,
to the Middle Atlantic, Chesapeake Bay, South At-
lantic and Gulf of Mexico regions (NMFS, 1995).
The two states of Maryland and Virginia have his-
torically produced and continue to market more blue
crabs than any other region.
According to the original systematic study of the
blue crab, The Life History of the Blue Crab, the
species was first marketed in the United States
around 1873 when soft shell blue crabs were shipped
from Crisfield, Maryland to Philadelphia, Pennsyl-
vania (Churchill, 1921). The hard blue crab fishery
originated in 1878 with the opening of a cannery in
Virginia, and by 1880, demand was widespread.
Crisfield, Maryland became the hub for soft crab
rail shipments to northern cities. Demand grew for
both soft and hard crabs in the restaurants of Phila-
delphia and New York. Chesapeake crab stocks ac-
commodated rapidly increasing harvests to supply
an expanding market which grew from 4 million kg
in 1890 to 9 million kg by 1900. Available infor-
mation indicates that reported harvests continued
to increase from 1880 to 1915, perhaps largely due
to improved shipping facilities and the use of ice (Fig.
A 1924 report predicted the demise of the blue
crab stock and industry because of a 55% decrease in
reported harvests from 1915 to 1920 (Earle, 1925).
Thereafter, reported landings recovered somewhat,
Figure 1. Reported United States commercial blue crab landings by region, 1945 to 1994.
Figura 1. Registro de desembarques comerciales de jaiba azul por región en los Estados Unidos, desde 1945 a
Fisheries and management of Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs
96 Investigaciones Marinas
Figure 2. Reported commercial blue crab landings for the Chesapeake Bay region (Maryland and Virginia),
1880 to 1995.
Figura 2. Registro de desembarques comerciales de jaiba azul en la región de la Bahía de Chesapeake (Maryland
y Virginia), de 1880 a 1995.
Figure 3. Reported Chesapeake Bay commercial blue crab landings showing long-term and 5-yr means, 1945 to
Figura 3. Registros de desembarques comerciales de jaiba azul en la región de la Bahía de Chesapeake mos-
trando medias de largo plazo y de cinco años, de 1945 a 1995.
there was year-to-year variability, and a new low in
reported harvest occurred during the period of World
War II (Fig. 2). In 1939, another comprehensive
study predicted depletion and collapse of the blue
crab resource unless a number of specific manage-
ment measures were taken (although in the same
report, the author noted that the blue crab’s high
fecundity and short life span enabled it to “survive
at great odds”) (Truitt, 1939). Thereafter, reported
harvests generally increased to record levels from
1945 until this decade, interspersed with intervals
of reduced harvests (Figs. 2 and 3).
Historically the blue crab fishery in Chesapeake
Bay has undergone periods of low abundance that
cannot be ascribed solely to reported changes in fish-
ing effort and power. If reported harvests are any
indication of abundance, there were three periods
of prolonged, relatively low abundance since 1929
(Figs. 2 and 3), superimposed over a long-term in-
creasing trend. These periods were from 1930 to
1945, although this is confounded by the effects of
reduced fishing during the second world war, from
1951 to 1960, and from 1968 to 1980. In each of
these periods apparent abundance was below the
long-term average from 1945 to 1994 (Fig. 3). En-
vironmental conditions, ecological interactions and
market forces have been hypothesized as reasons
for these periods of lower harvest (and probably
lower stock). Any interpretation of recent declines
in reported harvests must consider this historical
The three highest reported landings in the
Chesapeake Bay were in 1981, 1985 and 1990 at
roughly 45 million kg. There has been some debate
over the 1981 reported landings because at the time
Maryland changed from a voluntary census to a
mandatory sampling system (Summers et al., 1983a,
1983b). Although, there is evidence to suggest that
the apparent increase in abundance was not a re-
porting artifact (below). A year after one of the worst
harvests in Maryland, commercial crab catches in-
creased to 26 million kg in 1993, 50 million kg to-
tal for Chesapeake Bay the highest since commer-
cial records were kept. For the Chesapeake Bay,
reported landings were estimated to be about 40
million kg in 1995. These record harvests coincide
with the adoption of mandatory reporting in Vir-
ginia and the possibility that these record harvests
are at least partially an artifact of the new reporting
system should not be discounted.
The use of reported landings data alone to as-
sess relative abundance is usually biased because it
does not account for changes in fishing effort and
power. Since 1981 it has been possible to estimate
catch per unit effort (CPUE) in the Maryland com-
mercial blue crab pot fishery (Fig. 4). CPUE has
closely paralleled Maryland total reported landings
Fishery independent sampling, if designed and
implemented properly, is more reliable than fish-
ery-dependent data because it employs standardized
sampling methods and it is not dependent on indi-
viduals who might have an economic interest in not
reporting their catch and effort accurately. Two no-
table fishery independent surveys have been con-
ducted to assess the status of the Chesapeake Bay
blue crab stock: the Calvert Cliffs pot sampling study
and the bay-wide winter dredge survey.
The Calvert Cliffs study, ongoing since 1968
and uses standardized sampling methods. Commer-
cial crab pots of 25-mm galvanized wire mesh were
used to sample crab stocks at three stations in Mary-
land near Calvert Cliffs from late spring until late
fall. The pots were generally fished every other week
(Abbe, 1983; Abbe and Stagg, 1996). Catch per pot
by size class (6.35 mm) and sex were recorded, and
average annual CPUEs were estimated.
The long-term trend indicates comparable rela-
tive abundances from 1968 to 1980 and from 1987
to the present, with a notable and significant increase
in relative abundance from 1981 to 1986 (Fig. 4).
This pattern is similar to that seen in reported catch
data and is evidence that the large increase in re-
ported landings in 1981 is not attributable to report-
ing changes. Correlation analysis has shown that the
time series of CPUE estimated from the Calvert
Cliffs data is significantly correlated with reported
Maryland commercial catch (r=0.70, p<0.0001),
Maryland commercial crab pot CPUE (r=0.881,
p<0.0001) and total reported Chesapeake Bay catch
(r=0.686, p<0.0001) (Abbe and Stagg, 1996).
The second fishery-independent sampling pro-
gram is the blue crab winter dredge survey begun in
1989 (Rothschild and Ault, 1992). The program was
based on the fact that blue crabs become inactive
when the water temperature falls below 10°C. Dur-
ing winter is then the best time to sample, when there
is little-to-no movement of crabs in or out of the
system. Crabs are randomly sampled throughout
Chesapeake Bay using a lined dredge (mesh of 12
cm) and has been shown to catch crabs as small as
Fisheries and management of Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs
98 Investigaciones Marinas
Figure 5. Reported United States commercial blue crab landings by hard and soft crab market categories, 1945
Figura 5. Desembarques de jaiba azul informados por Estados Unidos para el mercado de las categorías de
jaiba dura y blanda, de 1945 a 1994.
Figure 4. Comparison of trends in Maryland reported blue crab landings (1968 to 1995), Maryland blue crab
CPUE (1981-1993), Calvert Cliffs blue crab pot sampling study CPUE (1968 to 1995), and bay-wide blue crab
winter dredge survey CPUE (1989 to 1996).
Figura 4. Comparación de tendencias en los desembarques de jaiba azul registrados en Maryland (1968 a
1995), CPUE de la jaiba azul para Maryland (1981-1993), CPUE del estudio de muestreo de Calvert Cliffs para
trampas de jaiba azul (1968 a 1995), y CPUE de la exploración de dragado en toda la bahía, en invierno (1989
15 cm reliably (Rothschild and Ault, 1992). Sex and
carapace width are recorded to the nearest mm, nomi-
nal age classes are assigned as age 0 (0 to <60mm),
age 1 (60 to <120 mm) and age 2+ (>=120 mm) (Fig.
4). Nominal age class 1 has been shown to be a good
predictor of (1) Maryland reported harvest and (2)
Calvert Cliffs Age 2+ CPUE in the same year as the
survey (Rugolo et al., 1997).
Hard and soft crab landings
United States blue crab markets are usually divided
into hard crab landings and peeler and soft crab land-
ings. Hard crabs have hard carapaces and are between
molts, whereas peelers are hard crabs showing signs
under the existing shell (the emerging new shell) of
imminent molting, and soft crabs are crabs that have
recently molted, and not yet hardened. Soft crabs are
caught in the wild in that state, but more often are
produced in an operation that holds peelers in shed-
ding tanks until molting occurs. This adds some sta-
bility to the industry.
Hard blue crab landings have historically ac-
counted for more than 90% of blue crab landings by
mass, not numbers (Fig. 5). From 1990 to 1994, U.S.
reported blue crab landings averaged 96.2 million kg
of which 98.4%, or 94.7 million kg were hard crabs.
The highest level of soft crab production is in the
Chesapeake region, where 2.7%, by weight, of re-
ported landings over the same period were soft crabs.
Soft crabs have always been more valuable on a
per unit basis than hard crabs, but not in absolute terms
(Fig. 6). From 1990 to 1994, hard crabs averaged
$1.38 per kg while soft crabs averaged $6.08 per kg,
a ratio of 1:4.4. The average combined value of U.S.
blue crab landings was $140.2 million from 1990 to
1994, of which 93.2%, or $130.7 million was derived
from hard crab landings. By contrast, Chesapeake Bay
landings averaged $53.1 million of which 89%, or
$47.3 million was attributable to hard crab landings.
Recreational and commercial landings
The magnitude of U.S. recreational or casual land-
ings is largely unknown. Surveys conducted in Mary-
land in 1983, 1988, and 1990 estimated recreational
harvest to be 18.7, 9.7 and 5.2 million kg (Stagg et
al., 1994). These values ranged from 25 to 80% of
the reported Maryland commercial landings in those
years, a sizeable component of total removals. The
surveys were a combination of access-intercept meth-
ods to determine catch rates at strategic points and
random-digit dialing telephone surveys to estimate
effort (number of trips per household). There is
some concern that biases relating to landings by
out-of-state crabbers and shoreline property own-
ers were not adequately dealt with in these sur-
With respect to value, the most recent esti-
mate of recreational harvest was for the 1990 sea-
son and was the lowest of the three available Mary-
land estimates. For the months of May through
October, about 2.5 million crabbing trips were es-
timated to have been made, with an average crab-
ber taking about five trips per season. From the
1991 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and
Wildlife-Associated Recreation (USFWS, 1993),
it is estimated that the average saltwater angler
spent $562 for the season for all expenditures.
Given the relatively small investment in equipment
for recreational crabbing, an estimate of $225 per
season covering just expenditures for transporta-
tion, rentals, bait, ice and user fees is more rea-
sonable. These estimates suggest that the economic
effect of recreational crabbing in Maryland in 1990
was about $112.5 million.
Landings by gear
Blue crabs are captured by a variety of gears, most
notably crab pots, trotlines, scrapes, dredges, and
otter trawls. Following its patenting in 1938, the
crab pot quickly began to replace other gears in
the Chesapeake region as the gear of choice. Most
crab pots are 0.6 m squares constructed of 2.9 cm
steel wire, including two or more conical entry
ways leading to a baited compartment. Pots are
set in up to 18 m depths, and connected to the
surface by a buoyed rope. For the period of avail-
able data, 1964 to 1988, the percentage of the re-
ported harvest landed by crab pots ranged from
about 60 to 80% (Fig. 7). The crab pot is the prin-
cipal gear in use in all producer states.
Prior to the invention of the crab pot, the crab
trotline was the dominant gear and remains im-
portant, particularly in Maryland. Trotlines are
simply lines (up to 1.6 km long) with other baited
lines attached at regular intervals of 1.8 to 2 m.
From 1964 to 1988, the trotline accounted for 5 to
25% of reported landings.
The crab dredge, a 1.8 m toothed bar attached
to a steel mesh bag, is used exclusively in
Virginia’s winter fishery and accounted for 5 to
20% of the reported catch from 1964 to 1988 (Fig.
7). The crab scrape is similar in design to the dredge,
Fisheries and management of Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs
100 Investigaciones Marinas
Figure 6. Value of reported United States commercial blue crab landings deflated to 1995 constant dollars, by
hard and sot crab market categories, 1945 to 1994.
Figura 6. Valor deflactado a dolar constante de 1995, de los desembarques de jaiba azul informados por Esta-
dos Unidos para el mercado de las categorías de jaiba dura y blanda, de 1945 a 1994.
Figure 7. Percent of reported United States commercial blue crab landings landed by major gears, 1964 to
Figura 7. Porcentaje de los desembarques comerciales de los Estados Unidos de jaiba azul capturados con los
artes más importantes, de 1964 a 1988.
however it has a burlap bag attached rather than a
steel mesh bag. It was developed in 1870, and has
historically been most important in the directed
peeler-soft crab fishery, although peeler pots (crab
pots having a smaller mesh than the standard crab
pot) have begun to account for more landings. In
the south Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, crab pots
and otter trawls have been particularly important
CHESAPEAKE BAY BLUE CRAB
A brief history of Chesapeake Bay blue crab man-
agement actions is presented below. There is prac-
tical benefit in comparing the implementation of
various regulations with periods of poor harvests.
To do this properly, the effects of other activities
such as the status of alternative fisheries, weather
patterns, national trends in nutrition and diet, and
conservation issues in general should be assessed.
However, such a comprehensive inquiry is beyond
the scope of this review, as is a comparative study
of blue crab management among producing states.
Since the first significant decline in blue crab
landings in 1924, implementation of management
measures have to some extent been responses to real
or perceived decreases in crab apparent abundance,
although as is the case with most natural resource
commodities, blue crab management largely came
about for economic reasons. Fisheries management
measures include, size and life stage, season, and
gear limitations, as well as entry restrictions either
through licensing or direct effort control. The his-
tory of blue crab management includes all of these.
An accounting of when specific types of regu-
latory measures were first enacted in the Chesapeake
Bay region follows: Licenses were first required for
blue crab harvesting in Chesapeake Bay in 1898.
The first closed season was initiated in 1906. In
1916, a prohibition on taking egg-bearing females
and a 127 mm size limit for hard crabs was estab-
lished. By 1941, the types of gear that could be used
to harvest crabs was restricted (dredges were elimi-
nated as a legal gear in Maryland) and a crab sanc-
tuary (area closure) was adopted. In 1943, the
amount of gear that could be deployed on one li-
cense was restricted, specifically number of crab
pots. In 1988 the Maryland legislature enacted a de-
layed entry program in an attempt to cap effort.
Early blue crab management, Pre-1925
Licenses were first required for blue crab harvest-
ing in Chesapeake Bay in Virginia in 1898 more for
revenue generation than for fishery management.
According to archive files, some local governments
in Maryland issued their own crabbing licenses as
early as 1903. Crabbing in Maryland was not li-
censed or taxed by the state until 1916; licenses were
issued on a county basis as watermen were required
to harvest within their county of license (some coun-
ties offered reciprocity). Non-residents were pro-
hibited from obtaining a crabbing license in Mary-
land until 1983 when both Maryland and Virginia
as a result of litigation recognized reciprocal licens-
New harvest methods continued to be devel-
oped. Watermen dredging oysters found “hibernat-
ing” crabs in their rigs and soon began dredging for
crabs during the winter months. In 1906, Maryland
established a crabbing season from May through
October, thus, eliminating a winter harvest. Virginia
continued to allow winter dredging, which in 1920
accounted for 13% of the total Chesapeake harvest
and remains an important harvest to this day.
After the establishment of a season and a li-
cense requirement, size and life stage limits were
the next management measures considered in the
Chesapeake region. In 1916, Maryland adopted a
127 mm hard crab minimum size in Somerset
County, and Virginia banned the taking of sponge
crabs between June 15 and August 31 and enacted a
season for winter dredging.
The following year, the Maryland size limit was
extended statewide and a prohibition on the posses-
sion of sponge crabs and peelers was implemented.
Based on reports published in the 1940s, enforce-
ment of these regulations was sporadic at best. For
example, a 1939 investigation of the soft crab
(peeler) industry revealed that mortality was as high
as 80% (possibly because watermen continued to
take peelers which were not ready to shed within a
two day period) (Truitt, 1939).
Blue crab management, 1925 to 1981
An important survey of the Chesapeake blue crab
was initiated in August of 1924 by the U.S. Bureau
of Fisheries. Much of what we know of the early
crab fishery was compiled in the report, The Survey
of the Condition of the Crab Fisheries of the Chesa-
peake Bay, which was published in December 1925.
The Survey stated in its purpose that the blue crab
Fisheries and management of Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs
102 Investigaciones Marinas
fishery was “now faced with destruction.” The 1924
Survey listed in its synopsis that: the 1924 crab har-
vest was half of the 23,000 tons taken from the
Chesapeake in 1915; abundance had decreased 75%
since 1907; 75% of the adult stock was removed by
the commercial catch; 30 to 50% of peeler crabs were
wasted because they were taken too soon, among
There has been a tendency when landings have
fallen in the past for political involvement in the
management process to increase, and for political
involvement to decrease or disappear when land-
ings are stable. There is no better example of this
than the “crab crisis” of 1924. The perceived crisis
led to a meeting in September of 1924, between the
Governors of Maryland and Virginia. The State of
Maryland proposed four measures to be adopted by
both States: (1) Virginia should ban the taking of
sponge crabs during the entire year, instead of June
15 to August 31 (peak spawning period) as was in
place at the time; (2) Virginia should shorten the
dredging season from 6 months to 3 months (to re-
duce fishing on dormant overwintering females); (3)
Maryland and Virginia should increase minimum
size limits to 152 mm for hard crabs and 90 mm for
soft crabs; and (4) both States should ban the taking
of green crabs (under-sized crabs showing no signs
of molting). What is notable is none of these pro-
posed actions were put into place.
By 1929, Chesapeake harvests exceeded
27,000 tons, the record harvest up to that point, and
little more was adopted to further protect blue crab
populations in the ensuing decade. Fishing tech-
niques and participants remained reasonably con-
stant during the 1930s. There were approximately
2,400 Maryland crabbers in 1929 and nearly the
same in 1939.
A major turning point in the history of blue
crab fisheries and management came with the in-
vention in of the crab pot and by 1940 was in wide-
spread use. When introduced, the crab pot was less
labor intensive than other methods, permitted rapid
expansion in effort because it became relatively in-
expensive to enter the fishery. The same year the
crab pot was introduced produced a poor harvest
and the crab pot was offered as an explanation. The
Maryland legislature excluded the crab pot in a list
of legal gears during the 1941 legislative session.
The crab pot was reinstated as a legal gear in Mary-
land in 1943, permitted in the Chesapeake Bay
proper and the Potomac River. Crabbers were ini-
tially limited to 35 pots, but over the course of sev-
eral years the limit on crab pots has increased.
In 1941, in response to the concern over the
taking of sponge crabs, Virginia set aside a sanctu-
ary for crabs near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
When the Department of Chesapeake Bay Affairs
was created in Maryland in 1964, a more compete
catch reporting system was established (e.g. land-
ings by gear type). By this time, the recreational
crabber was increasing in numbers, and judging
from the sequence of regulations enacted from 1964
to 1968, the recreational crabber was a segment of
the fishery which had not been an issue until the
1960s. Around this time, the crab pot was desig-
nated a commercial gear and not permitted to be
used by the recreational crabber.
Blue crab management, 1981 to present
A monthly sampling survey was initiated in Mary-
land beginning in 1981, the same year in which the
largest catch of record (27,000 tons) was landed.
Landings were so good during the 1980s that sev-
eral of Maryland’s crab management measures were
rolled back to what they were in the early days of
crabbing in the 1880s.
By 1985, the Department of Natural Resources
(MDNR) had issued over 18,000 crabbing licenses,
half of which were “non-commercial”. In an effort
to moderate the expansion of the state’s commer-
cial fisheries, Maryland adopted a “delayed entry”
licensing program for commercial licenses in 1988,
implemented in 1989. Applicants would pay the
licensing fee at the time of application and wait two
years to receive the fishing permit. Motivated by
the producers, who were working longer for fewer
crabs, this had less to do with conservation then in-
dividual economics. The number of commercial
crabbing licenses remained at about 6,000. The num-
ber of “non-commercial” licenses increased rapidly
from around 7,000 in 1990 to over 12,000 in 1992.
Between 1992 and 1994, Virginia enacted a
number of new laws and regulation pertaining to
blue crabs: a commercial license ($150) was re-
quired, two year delayed entry, limited entry in the
dredge fishery, the dredge catch limit was lowered
from 25 barrels to 20 barrels per day, a 59 mm cull
ring in hard crab pots was required, peeler pot fish-
ermen and soft crab shedders were licensed, man-
datory reporting was enacted, a recreational crab
licence ($29) was required as well as a five-pot re-
striction for recreational crabbers.
An advisory panel was convened in 1992 to
guide MDNR in implementing more protective man-
agement of the crab fishery. Consensus was to cap
fishing effort at then current levels. The Governor’s
Crab Action Plan was introduced in the Summer of
1993 with a focus on stabilizing fishing effort and
addressing the recreational crabbing issue. The 1993
crab harvest exceeded recent records making it dif-
ficult to adopt restrictive measures in the midst of
what appeared to be a natural recovery and abun-
dance. Nevertheless, legislation necessary to imple-
ment the Governor’s plan was introduced to the 1994
General Assembly and regulations were proposed
by the Department of Natural Resources.
By 1995, a growing atmosphere of concern that
crab stocks were in danger characterized blue crab
management in 1995. MDNR organized another
blue crab advisory committee and prepared a sum-
mary of all blue crab data to date and a blue crab
stock assessment was begun by the Chesapeake Bay
Stock assessment Committee (CBSAC). Landings
for 1995 were slightly below the 10 year average.
In an emergency measure the Governor’s of-
fice announced that a reduction in the harvest of
spawning stock was necessary to stabilize the com-
mercial crab industry. The State set a target of re-
ducing the female catch by 20%. Beginning Sep-
tember 1995, the Chesapeake Bay tributaries were
closed to commercial crabbing on Sundays; the main
stem of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland was closed
to commercial crabbing on Mondays; commercial
hours were reduced to eight hours a day; recreational
crabbing was restricted to Fridays, Saturdays, and
Sundays; and the crabbing season was closed No-
vember 18, 1995.
A blue crab stock assessment was begun in
1995 by the NMFS CBSAC. The stock assessment
comprised a review, synthesis and analysis of all
available, relevant data on blue crab biology and
fisheries (Rugolo et al., 1997). Conclusions of the
completed assessment include the following: (1) the
Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock “appears stable over
the long term while the juvenile population has been
increasing over the last decade despite a dramatic
increase in commercial fishing effort”, (2) despite
this increase in effort fishing mortality has remained
relatively constant over the long term (“as a result
of gear saturation and/or gear competition”), and
(3) there are indications of “severe” overcapitaliza-
tion in the fishery.
The stock assessment did not directly address
the question of the effectiveness of the regulatory
measures outlined above. Market forces and reac-
tion to perceived crises have historically played a
major role in the specification of crabbing regula-
tions. Natural fluctuations in blue crab stocks driven
by environmental variables (Tang, 1985), as well
as the effects of human intervention, account for
the historic pattern of widely-varying blue crab
abundance observed in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Abbe, G.R. 1983. A study of blue crab populations
in Chesapeake Bay in the vicinity of the Calvert
Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, 1968-1981. J.
Shellfish Res., 3: 183-193.
Abbe, G.R. and C. Stagg. 1996. Trends in blue
crab (Callinectes sapidus Rathbun) catches
near Calvert Cliffs, Maryland from 1968 to
1995 and their relationship to the Maryland
commercial fishery. J. Shellfish Res., 15: 751-
Churchill, E.P. Jr. 1921. Life history of the blue
crab. Bulletin U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, 36:95-
Earle, S. 1925. Maryland’s efforts to save the blue
crab of Chesapeake Bay. Conservation Bulle-
tin Nº 1, State of Maryland.
Fischler, K.J. 1965. The use of catch-effort, catch-
sampling, and tagging data to estimate a popu-
lation of blue crabs. Trans. Am. Fish. Soc., 91:
Johnson, D.F and K.W. Hess. 1990. Numerical
simulations of blue crab larval dispersal and
recruitment. Bull. Mar. Sci., 46: 195-213.
Johnson, D.R. 1985. Wind-forced dispersion of
blue crab larvae in the Middle Atlantic Bight.
Cont. Shelf Res., 4: 733-745.
Johnson, D.R., B.S. Hester and J.R.
McConaugha. 1984. Studies of a wind mecha-
nism influencing the recruitment of blue crabs
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McConaugha, J.R., D.F. Johnson, A.J.
Provenzano and R.C. Maris. 1983. Seasonal
distribution of larvae of Callinectes sapidus
(Crustacea: Decapoda) in the waters adjacent to
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104 Investigaciones Marinas
Milliken, M.R. and A.B. Williams. 1984. Synopsis
of biological data on the blue crab, Callinectes
sapidus Rathbun. U.S. Department of Com-
merce, NOAA Technical Report NMFS 1.
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). An-
nual Volumes 1945-95, Fishery Statistics of the
United States. U.S. Dept. Of Commerce.
Rathbun, M.J. 1896. The genus Callinectes. Pro-
ceedings of the U.S. National Museum, 18(1070):
Rothschild, B.J. y J.S. Ault. 1992. Assessment of
the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock. Ref. No.
UMCEES [CBL] 92-082. Final report for NO/
NMFS Grant NA16FU0529-01.
Rugolo, L., A. Lange, K. Knotts, C. Stagg, R.
O’Reilly, M. Terceiro, V. Crecco, and D.
Vaughan. 1997. Chesapeake Bay blue crab
stock assessment. National Oceanic and Atmo-
spheric Administration, National Marine Fish-
eries Service, Chesapeake Bay Stock Assess-
ment Committee, Annapolis, Maryland.
Stagg, C, M. Holloway, L. Rugolo, K. Knotts, L.
Kline and D. Logan. 1994. Evaluation of the
1990 recreational, charter boat, and commercial
striped bass fishing surveys, and design of a rec-
reational blue crab survey. Maryland Dept. Of
Truitt, R.V. 1939. The blue crab. Pages 10-38 In:
Our Water Resources and Their Conservation.
University of Maryland, Chesapeake Biologi-
cal Laboratory Contribution Number 27.
United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
1993. National survey of fishing, Hunting, and
Wildlife Associated Recreation. U.S. Dept. of
U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. 1925. The survey of the
condition of the crab fisheries of the Chesapeake
Bay. U.S. Bureau of Fisheries
Van Engel, W. 1958. The blue crab and its fishery in
Chesapeake Bay. Part 1. Reproduction, early de-
velopment, growth and migration. Commercial
Fisheries Review, 24(9): 1-10.
Summers, J.K., H.W. Hoffman, and W.A. Richkus.
1983a. Randomized sample surveys to estimate
annual blue crab harvests by a multi-gear fish-
ery in the Maryland waters of Chesapeake Bay.
North Am. J. Fish. Mngt., 3: 9-20.
Summers, J.K., W.A. Richkus., H.W. Hoffman, C.
Bonzek, H.H. King and M. Burch. 1983b.
Application of random sample surveys to esti-
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Recibido el 03 de diciembre de 1996.
Aceptado el 23 de mayo de 1997.