Reopening Virginia’s Winter Crab Season a Mistake Amid Lackluster Crab Numbers

Virginia Groups Oppose Restarting Winter Harvest After 15-Year Closure

Persistent concerns about the numbers of the iconic and economically valuable blue crab should persuade Virginia state regulators on June 25 to vote against a proposal to reopen the winter crab season after 15 years of closure. 

Despite Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) staff’s advice to keep the winter crabbing season closed, the Blue Crab Management Advisory Committee voted at their May 29 meeting to support opening  the winter dredge fishery for the 2024-2025 season. The VMRC is expected to vote on the proposal at its June 25 meeting. 

VMRC’s Fisheries Management staff member Alexa Galván told the Blue Crab Management Advisory Committee on May 29 that the winter season should remain closed.

“Because the population did stay fairly stable, we did want to keep about the status quo. We are still recommending closure of the winter dredge fishery,” Galván said. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, Friends of the Rappahannock, Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, and the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) Virginia oppose the committee’s recommendation for additional harvest and call on VMRC to maintain the current closure of this segment of the fishery.

Crabbing is currently only allowed between March through the middle of December in Virginia. The winter dredge season, which would extend crabbing beyond December, primarily targets female crabs. The winter dredge fishery involves scraping crabs from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay where they lie semi-dormant through the winter. Declines in the blue crab population led to a fishery disaster declaration in 2008. That year, numerous conservation measures were enacted that included closing the winter dredge fishery. 

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is expected to vote on the committee’s proposal when it takes up possible amendments to Virginia commercial crabbing regulations on June 25. 

The environmental and recreational fishing groups base their opposition on the May release of the annual blue crab winter dredge survey, an estimate of the blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Additionally, an ongoing stock assessment is expected to shed new light on the Bay’s blue crab population in March 2026. Watch a video of how the survey is conducted.  

The survey results raised concerns about the overall decline of the blue crab population, following record low crab numbers in 2022. The 2024 survey estimated total crab abundance at 317 million blue crabs, which remains below the long-term average of more than 400 million crabs. 

In 2024, according to the survey, the adult female crab population decreased to 133 million compared with 152 million last year. This figure falls far below the target of 215 million adult female crabs needed for a healthy population and sustainable harvest in the Chesapeake Bay.   

In addition, juvenile crab numbers improved slightly when compared to 2022, but the juvenile population has remained below average since 2020.  Male crab numbers decreased from 55 million in 2023 to 46 million in 2024 despite male harvest limits instituted last year. 

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Chris Moore issued the following statement:

“Reopening the winter crab season would be a mistake. The survey results do not warrant additional harvest of this keystone species that supports one of the state’s most valuable fisheries. The Bay is still suffering from below average adult female crab numbers, a low number of male crabs, and persistently below-average numbers of young crabs. 

“This calls for continued protection of these vital segments of the population so that female crabs can reproduce, increase the population, and support sustainable harvests throughout the year. Opening the winter dredge fishery is particularly concerning given the winter dredge season’s focus on the adult female crab population.”

Friends of the Rappahannock Advocacy and Coastal Programs Director Brent Hunsinger issued the following statement:

“An abundant and sustainable blue crab population requires careful management based on sound science. The results of the annual survey highlight the importance of protecting spawning females and maturing juveniles. Now is the time for precaution. We still have a long way to go before we consider exposing this critical and vulnerable species to additional stressors.”

CCA Virginia Chairman Rob Allen issued the following statement: 

“Blue crabs in the Chesapeake are facing continued habitat changes, including declines in suitable habitat and increased predation by widespread invasive blue catfish. The opening of the winter dredge fishery would be an irresponsible step in the wrong direction, and is a measure that the public does not support.”

James River Association Lead Policy Advocate Nathan Thomson issued the following statement:

"Virginia has worked hard to better manage the blue crab population over the years, but opening the winter dredge season would be a step backwards. The limits on the blue crab fishery are an important piece of the puzzle for securing a healthy blue crab population, but the latest survey results show that the population remains vulnerable. Virginia must avoid changes that would negatively impact the population and the ecological and cultural role it plays in the James River."  

Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association Chairman Steve Atkinson issued the following statement: 

“The reasons for blue crab population changes are varied and complex. The survey results follow years of declines in underwater grasses, a critical habitat for blue crabs. But blue crabs also contend with numerous other threats including climate change, water quality challenges, and invasive blue catfish. The ongoing blue crab stock assessment is expected to identify the key ecosystem factors influencing blue crab survival. We need improved understanding before opening the winter dredge season, and not just for the sake of blue crabs. We should remember that this species also serves as important forage for many important fish in the bay.”

For more information on the blue crab life cycle, watch this video.

Vanessa-Remmers_90x110

Vanessa Remmers

Virginia Communications & Media Relations Manager, CBF

[email protected]
804-258-1567

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