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Maryland Crabbing Stamps – Part One

I want to thank everyone who has told me how much they enjoyed the Maryland POW fishing stamps posts – it is very much appreciated! Several of you asked if I knew anything about the crabbing stamps that Maryland is “rumored” to have issued in the early 1990s. Well, it is more than a rumor and this will be the subject of the next series of posts.

As with the vast majority of fish and game stamps that were required to be purchase by sportsmen, one of the primary purposes of the Maryland crabbing stamps is to serve as a means to regulate the harvest of a species that at various times was thought to be endangered – or at least needs to be monitored closely to keep populations in equilibrium.

The species is callinectes sapidas; from the Greek calli- = “beautiful”, nectes = “swimmer” and Latin sapidus = “savory” or as it more comonally known – the Atlantic blue crab and, regionally, as the Chesapeake blue crab.



The blue crab is found from Nova Scotia to Uruguay, in rivers, sounds (narrow stretches of water forming an inlet or connecting two larger areas of water such as two seas or a sea and a bay) and waters that are close to shore in the Atlantic.

One of the largest concentrations of blue crabs is found in the Chesapeake Bay, which is a broad inlet of the Atlantic Ocean (where the land curves inward). 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 well under 50%.

Chesapeake Bay is bordered by Maryland to the east and Virginia to the west (see Figure 1). Therefore, when it comes to protection and regulation of the blue crab population, this responsibility is shared by the two states.



Figure 1. Chesapeake Bay is located between Maryland and Virginia.



The Chesapeake blue crab population is distributed throughout the bay and its tributaries (primarily rivers and streams that flow into it). Males are generally found in areas with lower salinity levels than females and most mating occurs in brackish waters found in the centers of the bay.

Mature females move south to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in late summer and fall, where spawning occurs from May to September the following season. Larvae are transported out of the bay and then return via tidal currents. It used be thought that the maximum life span for a blue crab is three years. However, recent studies have revealed many crabs of at least five years and the maximum life span has now been raised to eight years.

In the United States, blue crabs are usually divided into three classifications: hard, peeler and soft. Hard crabs have hard carapaces (shells) and are between molts (see Figure 2). Molts occur as the crab outgrows the size of its existing shell and forms a new, larger one.



Figure 2. Chesapeake hard (shell) blue crab.



Peelers are hard crabs that are showing signs under their shell of imminent molting and soft crabs have recently molted and their shells have not yet hardened. In the case of soft shell crabs, the distinctive blue coloration may be absent or diminished (see Figure 2).



Figure 3. Chesapeake soft (shell) blue crab.



Female blue crabs molt 18 to 2o times over the course of a lifetime, whereas males are believed to go through the process a few more times.


Blue Crabs as a Human Food Source

The blue crab has been a much appreciated food going all the way back to the first Native American inhabitants of Maryland, 12,000 years ago. Archeologists have excavated ancient garbage pits and found them full of both of both crab and oyster shells. In fact, Chesapeake is a Native American word that means “great shellfish bay”.

Once colonists arrived in Maryland, they focussed on farming and cash crops such as tobacco and corn. While they did fish and eat seafood from the area’s many waterways, shellfish was more of a subsistence food as opposed to the delicacy it would eventually become (see Figure 4).



Figure 4. Maryland crab cakes – yum!



Since crabs were not easily preserved and transported, a wide market could not be established during the colonial period. Faster transportation methods and ice finally allowed for a regional market to be developed.

Blue crabs were first marketed in the U.S. around 1873 when soft shell blue crabs were shipped from Crisfield, Maryland to Philadelphia. The hard blue crab fishery originated in 1878 with the opening of a cannery in Virginia, and by 1880, demand was widespread. Demand grew for both soft and hard crabs in the restaurants of Philadelphia and New York.

The U.S blue crab fishery has many components but is largely comprised of thousands of small scale fishermen. There is both a commercial and a recreational fishery. The commercial fishery is divided into two segments; one for hard crabs and one for peelers and soft crabs.

Hard crabs are sold in the live trade market to restaurants and directly to consumers; to processors where crabmeat is prepared for resale and in overseas markets. Soft crabs are sold live or frozen within the U.S. and in some export markets. There is also a substantial recreational or sporting fishery for blue crabs (see Figure 5).



Figure 5. “Chicken neckers” having fun from a dock on the Chesapeake Bay. Many casual crabbers use a simple hand line with a chicken neck (or other kind of bait attached) and a dip net.



The magnitude of recreational landings has not been well defined. Several surveys were conducted throughout the 1980s, aimed at defining it as a percentage of commercial landings. However, the results varied widely, ranging from 25-80%.



Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Management

Licenses were first required for blue crab harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay by Virginia in 1898, more for revenue than for fishery management. Some local (county) governments in Maryland started issuing crabbing licenses starting in 1903. The first closed season was in 1906. At this time, Maryland established a crabbing season from May through October – thus eliminating winter harvesting.

In 1916, it was made illegal to take egg-bearing females and a 127 mm (five inch) size limit for hard crabs was established. Crabbing was not licensed by the State of Maryland until 1916. These licenses were for residents only as non residents were not allowed to obtain a crabbing license in Maryland until 1983.

Since the first significant decline in blue crab landings (or harvest) in 1924, implementation of management measures have been, to a large extent, responses to real or perceived decreases in crab apparent abundance.

According to the Survey of the Condition of the Crab Fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay, a report made in 1924, the crab fishery “was now faced with destruction”. The report stated that the 1924 crab harvest was down 50% since 1915 and 75% since 1907.

This led to a panic, especially among politicians in Maryland and Virginia and many proposals were hotly debated. At the end of the day, none were put into effect. By 1929, Chesapeake harvests exceeded 27,000 tons – a record up to that point – and no new measures were added to protect crabs for over a decade.

A major turning point in the history of blue crab fisheries and management came with the invention of the crab pot (trap) by Benjamin F. Lewis in the 1920s and its subsequent perfection in 1938.

What has become known as the Maryland crab pot is basically an enclosed chicken wire framework with four openings. The openings are constructed so that when crabs enter to eat the bait, they cannot escape. By 1940, the devices were in widespread use (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. A contemporary Maryland crab pot in use.



Prior to the invention of the crab pot, the crab trotline was the preferred method and remains important today, especially in Maryland. A trotline is a variation of a setline and is simply a long line, resting on the bottom of the bay and anchored at both ends, to which a series of baits are attached at intervals of two to six feet (see Figure 7).



Figure 7. Illustration of a crab trotline.



The trotline is pulled up and any feeding crabs are scooped up with a net. While fairly effective, the crab trotline is not nearly as efficient as the crab pot. In 1940, the crab harvest was poor. It was suspected that over harvesting by means of the crab pot was responsible.

In response, the Maryland Legislature banned crab pots for two years starting in 1941. In 1943, the use of crab pots was reinstated and since then crab fishery management has largely revolved around the number of crab pots permitted.

The number of recreational crabbers increased tremendously during the 1960s. This led to crab pots being designated for commercial use only.


The First Maryland Crabbing Stamps Issued

In 1981 blue crabs landed totaled 27,000 tons, matching the largest catch on record. Landings were so good during the 1980s that several of Maryland’s crab management measures were rolled back to what they were in the early days of crabbing – back in the 1880s.

By 1985, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources had issued over 18,000 crabbing licenses, half of which were issued to recreational or sport crabbers. It was during this period in the early 1980s that Maryland issued their first sport crabbing license stamps.

The stamps are very basic, with the letters “DNR” followed by a serial number (see Figures 8, 9 and 10). It may appear like they are more of a sticker than a stamp. However, they validated the computer generated license for sport crabbing use and, as such, are very similar in purpose to the stamps used by California to validate hunting and fishing licenses.



Figure 8. 1981 Maryland Sports Crabber license and validating stamp.



Figure 9. 1982 Maryland Sports Crabber license and validating stamp.



Figure 10. 1983 Maryland Sports Crabber license and validating stamp.



The Calvert Cliffs Study (ongoing) showed that there was “a notable and significant increase in relative [blue crab] abundance from 1981 to 1986”. In addition, the three highest landings on record for the Chesapeake Bay were in 1981 (tie), 1985 and 1990. Times were good for Chesapeake Bay commercial and recreational crabbing.



Next time, the Maryland crabbing stamps become a little more exciting…

Continue to part Part Two

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