From December to March, assessing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population means long stints on the water for scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Every year the blue crab winter dredge survey samples 1,500 randomly-chosen sites divided equally between Virginia and Maryland waters, in a partnership between VIMS and the Fisheries Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The data provides a bay-wide estimate of blue crab populations that helps agencies determine how many can be harvested without hampering the recovery of one of the Chesapeake Bay’s defining resources.
After a clear, calm sunrise in the second week of March, the VIMS team left their headquarters in Gloucester Point, Virginia, with 742 of 750 sites under their belt. Their boat, the R/V Bay Eagle, is their home during trips lasting up to four days at a time. With just eight sites left to sample using their six-foot-wide crab dredge, this would be a relatively short day—the last one of the season.
“That sort of puts a smile on our face,” said Mike Seebo, a VIMS marine scientist who has worked on the winter dredge survey since its second winter in 1990.
The dredge relies on the blue crab’s winter behavior of burrowing into the mud and lying dormant when the temperature drops below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When the crabs wake up in the coming months, the mature females will migrate to lower-salinity spawning grounds in the Bay’s tributaries, a journey of up to 150 miles for crabs reaching the northernmost habitats.
And many of the crabs will end up harvested, steamed and covered in Old Bay seasoning. For one of the region’s mainstays, the numbers coming from the survey teams will be highly awaited.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Video by Steve Droter