Keep Watch on the Ups & Downs of Blue Crabs

What might more blue crabs in Long Island Sound tell us about Long Island Sound?

A new season has opened for blue crabbing in Connecticut, and a lot of folks who watch the health of Long Island Sound will be closely watching the size of the blue crab “catch.”

Over the last decade or two, the Sound has been warming (like the air and marine waters nearly everywhere). That change may – may – have cost the Sound its lobster industry, because the water temperature gets warmer than lobsters prefer.

But what has been bad for lobsters has been good for blue crabs, which tolerate warmer water.  So researchers closely watch the blue crab population for signs of changes happening in the Sound. Has a shift happened? Has the southernmost range of lobsters indeed moved north? Has the primary range of blue crabs expanded north?

“We think they’re the primary indicator species,” Timothy Visel said of blue crabs.

Visel is the aquaculture program coordinator at the Sound School in New Haven, and he’s among those who closely monitors the numbers of juvenile and adult blue crabs.

So it seems more possible now to have a lot of blue crabs in Long Island Sound each summer.  But there are many factors in play that determine what kind of blue crab year it will be. A lot of it rides on what kind of winter we had.

A mild winter with a normal spring can yield a bounty. In the summer of 2010, it was Blue Crab Heaven out there. Visel estimates there were some 300 million to 400 million crabs for the taking (and boiling and steaming.)

But the numbers fell back last year, and Visel – based on what he’s seen in the central and eastern basins of the Sound – has a disappointing forecast for this summer. Two recent hurricanes – Irene and Sandy – and the coldest winter since 1957 may keep blue crab numbers down.  The forecast in the Chesapeake Bay (historically, the East Coast’s blue crab capital) also are “grim,” he said.

Why? The violently churning water during storms can pull blue crabs out of their hiding places, exposing them to predators and tossing them fatally up onto shore. And a prolonged winter kills crabs by starving them. The crabs, which can store up food energy to cover two to three months, won’t come out of winter hibernation until their water warms to about 48 degrees. If spring comes late, they may die before ever rousing from their winter beds.

But the season just opened May 1, so we’ll just have to see. No blue crabs have been collected yet during the initial 2013 outings of The Maritime Aquarium’s Marine Life Study Cruises, but we’ll be looking for them all summer.  (Join us. Our public cruises depart at 1 p.m. Saturdays through June 29; then at 1 p.m, daily in July & August.)

If you want to test your luck, all you need is a piece of string, a smelly old chicken drumstick, a net and a collection bucket. No license is required and there’s no creel limit, but there is a state size regulation: 5 inches side tip to side tip for hard-shell crabs or 3.5 inches for soft-shell.

And if you are fortunate enough to find blue crabs, be careful because they can pinch somethin' fierce!

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Thomas Crafts May 12, 2013 at 10:42 AM
You are kidding right? DEEP killed the lobster industry by using insecticides in trying to thwart West Nile virus that also killed - killed - lobsters. Lobsters take 5-7 years to get to 1 pound, crabs are mature after 1 year.
Cool May 12, 2013 at 08:35 PM
Thanks for this article. What a fun idea to go crabbing. Can you recommend any crabbing location that would be accessible by the public? I'm afraid I'm from an inland CT town and know very little about the waterfront in our fair state.
The Maritime Aquarium May 13, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Any public dock that gets you out over the water a bit. Looking at Norwalk, maybe the one outside our IMAX theater, or at the Visitor Dock on the other side of the drawbridge. Perhaps the little bridges to Bell Island (in Rowayton) or Canfield Island (east of Calf Pasture Beach), but parking is an issue there. Not sure where you are, but here's a website that tells you all public beach access points in CT: www.lisrc.uconn.edu/coastalaccess/searchtown.asp


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