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DNREC forecasts blue crab rebound, weak oyster harvest

Credit: Carrie B. Grisham/Chesapeake Bay Foundation

It could be an up and down year for Delaware Bay watermen, with a strong forecast for blue crab, but near-record low projections for oysters.


Surveys are projecting a solid harvest of around four million pounds for Delaware's most valuable fishery. DNREC's Rich Wong says that's based on the number of juvenile crabs coming into the bay's population -- what biologists call recruitment.

"Typically it's been below average" in the past 10 to 15 years, Wong says. "This year is right at the long-term average -- it's around a 40-year average -- which is good, relatively speaking, for over the past 15 years or so."

He says the 2016 catch could be close to their best year recently, 2012, when Delaware Bay offered up 4.5 million pounds of blue crab.

But it doesn't necessarily indicate a trend:

"It's very, very difficult to predict the recruitment for this species.," he says. "They have huge swings in abundance and then sometimes large crashes. They're very volatile."

And they're so short-lived that managers don't need to cap the harvest to try and preserve the stock. Instead, Wong says only a certain number of watermen get to participate. And those that do could still see high prices this year -- Wong says it takes a while for the blue crab market to respond to higher abundance.

"We've seen the price at around $150 per bushel for the watermen at the dock, for the biggest crabs in the summertime, for the past two years," he says. "This is the highest we've ever seen it before."

And he says some crab went for twice as much at market. This year, the fishery should be worth about $4 million in Delaware  -- five times more the state's other commercial species combined, though it's still a fraction of the Chesapeake's value.

Meanwhile, the oysters aren't doing so well. Wong says they're worried about the prize shellfish. This year's catch could be in the bottom five of the past 40 years.



"And it's a species that needs a little extra protection, since its shells -- they themselves are their own habitat," he says. "So they can't be harvested as heavily as a fish or crab stock."

This year, DNREC will cap the oyster harvest around 10,600 bushels -- a 13 percent drop from 2015. Wong says the fishery is usually worth about $1 million at the dock, with quota divided up ahead of time among the fleet.

Still, Delaware only accounts for about a tenth of the oyster territory in the bay. The rest falls in New Jersey, where watermen can dredge up eight times as many oysters as on the bay's western edge.

They can do that in spring and fall, but Wong says most Delaware Bay boats start the year pursuing crab and fish, like stripers. They'll turn to oysters in September.