The Connecticut Blue Crab Population and Habitat Study 2010-2015
The Sound School – The ISSP and Capstone Project Proposal
Building a Network of Citizen Monitors
The Search for Megalops
Report 9 – August 30, 2012
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!
Reports 1 through 8 (2012) available upon request:
Reports 1 to 12, 2011 also available on Archive Section http://www.bluecrab.info/
and both years on the Blue Crab Blog http://bluecrabblog.blogspot.com/
Program Reports 1 to 5 are also available from Tim Visel at email@example.com
· Back to School – Thank you for all your comments and suggestions. A review of our CT Blue Crab season to date – future student Capstone projects in 2013.
- Keep Those Crabs Alive – The Knuckle Blue Crab Banding Process – Regional Bait and Tackle stores will demonstrate the technique – and carry supplies.
- Large Hard-shell Crabs Move East to Connecticut River. Crabbing surges in Central Connecticut-again!
- Special Report, The Connecticut River Trap Fishery -- A Trotline Experiment from 2010.
Back to School – Thank you for all your comments and suggestions –
Our CT Blue Crab Season To Date
It’s the end of August and beginning of another school year. We have a new freshman class entering the Sound School this week, but will try to get at least one report out in September, October and November. It’s been an interesting blue crab season quite different than 2011 but similar to 2010. A large difference was the absence of crabs in western Connecticut but the central section including the New Haven Harbor area had the largest populations – eastern populations are just showing up now and crabbing generally has been good in the central and eastern towns the past two weeks.
It’s been however, a disappointing crab season for the western Connecticut crabbers, as very productive areas last year had little or no crabs this year. While central sections in 2011 had a poor year when compared to 2010, this year the place to crab was between West Haven and Old Saybrook. Later it appears as if a very large group of crabs (thought to originate in New Haven and adjacent offshore areas) moved to the east to the Connecticut River the third week in August. Last year it was thought that masses of crabs moved east from the Housatonic River. During the second week of August, large hard shell crabs were detected in Branford then Guilford, Clinton Harbor on August 18, Old Saybrook and Oyster Rivers, 18 -20th then into the Connecticut River on the 21st to 24th.
Adding to the mystery was the age and condition of these crabs (see next section). They did not resemble the bright blue and white shells of the earlier spring and summer blue crabs; instead these crabs were larger and had very hard shells, brown colorations and showing numerous wounds and re-grown claws. Crabbers between Branford and Essex noticed the difference and a brilliant yellow faced crab was caught off the Essex Town Dock Sunday on August 26 by William Doane of Essex. Yellow face crabs were mixed in with this population and crabs over seven inches spike to spike were common. Reports of catching crabs 9 inches or more were frequent.
Many crabbers have asked about the dramatic increase in female sponge crabs, in Bridgeport, Fairfield and Clinton Harbor this spring. We just don’t know why they select these areas but several crabbers have suggested the dredged channels might be providing habitat refugia from more saline predators including starfish and conch species.
The best indication of the fishery for next year came from Steve Joseph (an aquaculture teacher here at Sound School) and his son Kelly who over the weekend filled a small minnow seine with post Megalops crabs off Branford CT. He was able to catch some for a short video and photograph these small crabs in the palm of his hand only a half of an inch long (you can see the crab waving two fully formed claws around). Steve noticed that predation on these small crabs was already intense. Fish were actively consuming them in large numbers along the beachfront. Steve Joseph remarked the whole shore area was full of small crabs, too numerous to even estimate the amount.
I want to thank all the crabbers who sent reports and provided observations this summer; they are important and add to our understanding of our blue crab population. I have altered my position on overwintering, believing once that all blue crabs are eliminated by our cold winters –fresh water runoff and salt water predators. This latest migration of older crabs has changed that perspective. That is not happening, I still believe the CT River fishery is unique and nearly all the crabs are subject to the spring freshwater runoff and believe that to be true except for perhaps North Cove in the federal dredged harbor area.
To be honest, from past fishery reports we just haven’t seen blue crab populations this large since the 1908-1918 period. The number one environmental concern during this previous warm period was malaria spread by mosquitoes during that climate segment known as The Great Heat. Many coastal communities in Connecticut started during this period (1880-1920)and journals from the early Groton Long Point Community campers contain accounts of escaping the city heat to go blue crabbing. The best blue crabbing it seems was in the coves and bays surrounding Noank a century ago.
The 2012 fall crab fishery looks to be a good one for central and eastern CT with the number of large crabs now, it seems we may see new state records.
Attention will next focus on the extent and survival of the Post Megalops crab populations in western Connecticut.
This fall, the Search for Megalops will be divided into several Sound School Student Capstone and ISSP research projects – even the writing of the Search for Megalops Reports should have student governance. Some Sound School students have already started collecting data on Blue Crabs during the summer – please look for those reports in the spring of 2013.
Thanks again for all the reports this summer.
Keep Those Crabs Alive – The Knuckle Banding Process
Several Central Connecticut Bait and Tackle stores have agreed to demonstrate the Crab Banding procedure and carry the industry lobster banders and lobster bands.
These are the stores cooperating to date (no trade or product endorsement implied)
Captain Morgan’s Bait & Tackle
3 Boston Post Road, Madison CT
Captain Morgan has a bander kit available, the kit consists of a lobster bander, leather gloves and bands.
Tidewater Bait & Tackle
362 Boston Post Road
Peter Palmieri will demonstrate the banding process for crabbers.
Dick’s Marina, Beach Nut Sports
314 Boston Post Road
Tim Swain has sold out of lobster banders but still has bands available.
Rivers End Tackle
440 Boston Post Road
Old Saybrook, CT
Pat Abate is ordering a few banders and bands.
Ted’s Bait & Tackle
35 Clark Street
Old Saybrook, CT
Ted Lemelin reports he has sold out of lobster banders but still has bands and is reordering.
Several crabbers have tried the process and it does take some time to master the tool, but the bander will last years and the bands can be reused. A couple of crabbers who like lobsters had a supply of bands who now said they will be putting them to “good use” again.
One word of caution however, use the gloves these hard shell crabs are strong and crabbers have sent in reports pointing out the difference. The banders also have a small hole in the handle and people have commented about it when I demonstrated banding at several locations. I attach a piece of twine to a small float, or a cork and this has saved a bander many times at a dock area etc. that fell overboard.
Once you get the process down it will save time re-handling them and your catch.
Many of the bait and tackle stores listed above have offered to also demonstrate the process.
Large Hardshell Crabs Move East to The Connecticut River
Central CT crabbers during the period of August 16, 17, 18, 19, picked up on a second wave of adult crabs moving east reinforcing a previous wave of just sublegal crabs three weeks before. Large adult crabs hit the Branford River first and one of the noticeable features of this group is again the yellow faced crabs, a super hard shell with a splash of brilliant yellow around the mouth (see report #10 July 20, 2011). These crabs were super hard shells and had numerous injuries and older looking shells.
On Saturday, August 18th three yellow face crabs were observed at 1pm in Clinton, the first one at lower harbor Town Dock and two more shortly later were caught at the Indian River Crab Dock at 2pm. They had a brilliant patch of yellow and you could tell these crabs were packed, rock hard shells and their shells showed some algal growth, nicks and scrapes not the clean, not the new shells of bright white and blue shells earlier in the season. The Clinton Harbor crabber had about 35 large crabs after 3 hours of crabbing and hadn’t noticed the yellow features. The Indian River Crabber had about two dozen large crabs and you could really see the difference in shell condition and color. At 2:38pm the Indian River dock water temp 720.
Crabbing has surged again in the central areas and night time netters have reported catches from 70 to 100 crabs, doubling the average catch rate of 10 crabs to 20/hour and more from the DEEP Baldwin Bridge Boat launch pier. So I wanted to see what crabbing was like during the day and at night. I visited the Essex Town Dock at 11:10am Sunday on August 19th. Six crabbers were on the dock it was an incoming tide 11:19am the bottom water temp was 780 degrees Fahrenheit sunny and a light breeze. One crabber had returned 6 females and had seen no sponge crabs. They started crabbing at 7:30 in the morning and had about 45 crabs at 11:30. The Crabbing had increased and between 11:19 to 11:29am caught 11 crabs (a few two at a time) with the incoming tides at slack low the crabbing had stopped to almost nothing. But what really caught my attention was two young crabbers from Ivoryton, Kai and Christian Konstantino; they were right in the middle of the crabbing – darting back and forth between one trap and one handline – two 5 inch crabs and one 7.25 inch and one 7.5 inch crab were quickly placed in a small bucket. The two seven inch crabs were giving the smaller crabs a fight so I offered to band the crabs with my lobster bander and lobster bands. They quickly agreed, showing them how to band the knuckle and replaced all four crabs in the bucket – no more fighting and after saying thanks were back to the lines and trap, no time for small talk, they were having a great time! About 10 to 15 crabs an hour seemed about right. No yellow face crabs were observed; next it was the evening test.
I usually crab in Essex or Clinton: Clinton early in the season and then the Essex (CT River) later, at least since 2002. In our area of the Connecticut River the eel population is extremely high so a full chicken leg can be stripped to the bone just in a few minutes. Crabbers may see an eel from time to time during the day but at night they swarm the baits, providing that characteristic jerk at the line. Willard my son started using some of his old lobster Vexar™ bait bags (gave up on the 10 lobster pots – lobstering was terrible) left over from lobstering off Madison and Guilford years ago. He placed a pebble in each bag to hold the bottom – currents can be hard in the river so by 2007 he had a method to prevent the eels from taking the bait on a hand line, he used his lobster bait bags.
Essex Town Dock August 19-20, 2012
I must say the Vexar™ at night has certain advantages but not during the day in shallow “bright” areas, the bait bag seems to scare the crabs in bright light, however at night when the largest crabs leave the bottom it is a completely different story and they are very, very effective. Most of the crabs at night grab the Vexar™ mesh not the bait, so they do not tear off with a piece of the bait when they grab the bottom, instead now the crabs tend to “sail” into the dock with both claws clinging the Vexar™. In fact they grip it so hard you don’t need a net, you can lift them out of the water and shake them off, but we use a net still; we hit the Essex Dock about 11:15pm (flashlights a necessity).
My son Willard, his friend Josh and I put the Vexar™ bait bags on the hand lines; each bag had a chicken leg and piece of cut mackerel or bunker (menhaden). The problem was, as soon as we put out two hand lines – they hooked up with big crabs so I pulled them in and reset – same result two more large crabs at four lines out until by 11:30pm all four had crabs so I didn’t get all 6 lines out until midnight and fished six lines to 1am. About 75 minutes of full crabbing I hauled- Josh netted- Willard banded- yielded 67 crabs – frequent doubles and Josh only missed four (because of the Vexar™) sizes of crabs were broken into 3 categories:
21 5 to 5.5 spike to spike
27 5.5 to 6.5 spike to spike
19 6.5 to 7.5 spike to spike
For a total of 67 crabs
The largest crab was 7 5/8 although I have met two more crabbers (Ivoryton and East Haven) that claim to have caught over a 9 inch crab. This year I showed the largest of these crabs to Ted Lemelin of Teds Bait and Tackle, Old Saybrook and he feels he has not seen this size blue crab at this time in the CT River fishery since 1982.
He predicted an excellent Connecticut River fall fishery.
CT River Trap Fishery Increases as Crab Population Continues to Improve –
An account of the 2010 CT River Season – A Trot Line Experience
This past month (August 2012) the number of small boat trappers at the Baldwin Bridge (DEEP Boat Launch and Public Fish Pier) seemed to increase and when launched, headed up river. Most of the crab traps were the open end box traps but some were the older collapsible four sided wing wall traps. The CT River Fishery consists of traps set as singles, with a small diameter line and small buoy for each. One had used those white Clorox™ jugs for floats. A couple of conversation attempts ended quickly with “crab traps” and a reluctance to disclose locations etc. I can understand that, I lobstered commercially for 15 years with my brother Ray of Madison CT. When asked about how the lobstering was, we usually gave a one word response, “okay”.
One of the crabbers recognized me from last year and he knew I send out this report, so I didn’t even ask about his catches. These were daytime trappers, many crab at night also which according to some conversations last year morning tides were even better. Trappers head for hard or firm bottoms, moderate flows, and small coves and the Brockway Bay, west of beacon #22 CT River and Nott Island Bay north of Nott Island Essex were the 2010 locations of choice.
I had a lengthy conversation in 2010 with a local trap crabber (nighttime) who set traps below the bridges on the Black Hall and Lieutenant Rivers on the Old Lyme side. He had re-rigged the familiar ring stand shad light (see our Connecticut Shad Fishery publication # 5 on our adult education and outreach directory http://www.soundschool.com/directory.html) for nighttime blue crabbing. He had been crab trapping in the river since 2003 and had about 25 traps. Once he found a certain depth or band of crabs the trapping was very fast. He would first set a few traps on a test and if he hit the crabs deploy the rest around the productive area. Because these traps need to be constantly checked about 20 to 30 traps is all one person could check before the bait would all be consumed. Sometimes he went up river and other times into the usual lower marshes and rivers; that depended upon recent rainfalls. If it had been dry, he would head up to Essex if it had rained, he headed towards the river mouth. Early in the summer the Old Lyme Rivers were good, but by July 2010, crabs had moved far upriver. Some reports mentioned crabs in 2010 had even reached Deep River and Chester areas.
After a few minutes he pushed off the launch dock and headed up river. On the way out he suggested I check the population just north of Nott Island and gesturing, gave him a ‘thumbs up’. That was in 2010.
Later that week July 2010 crabbing surged at the Essex Town Dock and I remembered the suggestion directed to me at the Baldwin Bridge, to see it myself the incredible crab density. I was curious every day; the CT River crabbing seemed to get better – where did all these crabs come from? To investigate the population purchasing 20 crab traps for a one day test seemed a bit too expensive so I thought of a small trotline.
I had gone on a series of day trips in the early 1980s in Maryland to help with some Peeler Tanks recirculation systems see publication titled “Gravity Fed Self Regulating Bio-Suspended Solids Pillow Filter for Crab and Lobster Tanks” #21 on our Adult Education/Publications Directory and had seen trotlines set and hauled. I felt I could put something together and at much smaller cost than purchasing a number of traps. I started to plan out a crab trotline similar to the hook long lines used in offshore fisheries. My son Will was going to help me but at the time he was first mate on an historic schooner (Mary E) operating out of Essex, so I turned to an old Daniel Hand High School friend, Brian Sullivan of East Lyme who I had promised to take out blue fishing weeks before. Would he help me with a blue crab experiment before we went blue fishing? Brian responded yes, of course.
A trotline is simply a very long hand line with a series of line drops (snoods) from the mainline with a series of baits. It was the fishing gear of choice a century ago for blue crabbing in Connecticut. A line of continuous baited snoods is set on the bottom and then under run with a roller to lift the baits to the vessel while underway. A “dipper” nets the crabs hanging on the baits before they can break surface. A 40 bait trotline is a lot easier to fish than setting and pulling crab traps and a lot cheaper too.
Trotlines for blue crabbing is an old practice for catching hard shells in CT. Soft shell production however, that was sent to Fulton Fish Market, was mostly a nighttime dipping method *(see report #7). I had gone on some trotline trips down south years ago, so I tried to duplicate the roller and pipe extension used then. I purchased a roller from Jeff Wilcox of Wilcox Marine Supply (not trade or endorsement implied) along with 600 ft. of braided line about 3/16” diameter and made a horseshoe from threaded pipes and bolted it to the side of Willard’s 14’ Brockway skiff (middle seat). This device allows the line to be brought up to the surface for hand netting and can’t be unattended which is the whole point it must be attended to work. The trotline I used down south was a soft 3 strand line with snoods woven into the strands like a splice and a slip loop for the chicken necks. I can remember what an effort it was baiting the line. In our waters I felt the chicken neck would not last that long so I took some of Will’s Vexar™ lobster bait bag material (which I use in warm weather with bait hand lines) and made bait bags. A hog ring pliers and two sizes of clamps (the ones used to make wire lobster and eel pots also purchased at Wilcox Marine Supply) and made 40 draw string Vexar™ bait bags and clipped them to the main line about 12 feet apart. The draw string bait bag allowed me to put in a chicken wing or piece of cut bunker (menhaden). Making the bags took awhile but they can last a long time, etc. In baiting I wanted to also test bait preference so some bags got a chicken wing and piece of bunker, some just bunker and some just chicken. It was not only a test but an experiment as well.
I baited the trotline coiling it into a large plastic circular laundry tub; I put about 80 feet of blank overrun line on each end that is for the overruns to the anchor lines, which we connected two small mushroom anchors. (To keep the line on the bottom I placed a small stone in every five or so bait bags). I put the entire tub in the refrigerator the night before. When Brian arrived, I grabbed the tub two anchors and two anchor lines and buoys, everything fit into the laundry tub.
We launched at the Essex Town Boat ramp, dropped off the trailer, came back and headed for Nott Island in mid August 2010.
We caught just before high tide and dropped an anchor off the northern end of Nott Island (10 feet). The bottom was firm sand, the type of bottom mentioned a few weeks before as good, and prepared to set the line; the line is set between two anchors, fastening at the beginning of the baits a “grab float” this is hauled up and placed over the roller. Setting out was quick we had a slight breeze and tide making the setting quick. We waited about 10 minutes and pulled a grab float lifted it over the roller and put the engine to forward slow. The first bait bag broke the surface with three large jimmies holding on, but before Brain could react the bait bag hit the roller and the three crabs became airborne, the crabs were coming up too fast, I slowed down but the next two crabs also hit the roller but on the third bait bag Brian was ready and netted a large Jimmie. Then I remembered my trip down south and the chicken wire nets, how they could slice into the water and how easy crabs (large ones) fell out. On the fourth netted crab Brian was frantically shaking the net which now resembled more like a blue crab mop than a net with large crabs hanging on and in every direction. I carry two nets and he passed me the full one and he continued to net, but the second net also quickly filled, same problem trying to slow the line and the crabs were still coming up too fast, so we just suddenly stopped (unplanned) and we looked down. The surface had crabs everywhere, and the outboard had stopped.
I know that some of the southern crabbers are laughing now but at a certain point I lost maneuverability and the trot line was under the boat which had satisfied the outboard motors desire to eat it, which it did in great gulps. While I unwrapped the bait bag, angry crabs and line from the propeller, Brian scooped up all the crabs he could see on the surface and incredibly they refused to let go of the bait bags! The bait bag material Vexar™ allowed them to grip the mesh tightly so even out of the water they wouldn’t let go. So after awhile, Brian would just bring the bait bag into the boat and shook it sometimes with 3 crabs on a bag. We looked at each other and said, why use the outboard at all?
This was not a prime time video moment and our discussion a critique of each other’s performance was somewhat loud (apparently) and had alarmed hand liners who came over in their boat to see if we were okay. I explained what we were trying to do but the crabs were just coming up too fast, etc. The absence of the chicken wire net made a quick retrieval with power (outboard) now impossible. Some of the bait bags had more than one crab so I hauled the line by hand so Brian could net better; we checked the line 2 times for 84 crabs. This was better due to the multiple crabs per bag. We spent the next hour or so banding them and set off for blue fishing. As for the bait, the mixture of bunker and chicken wings worked the best. It took awhile for what we saw to sink in, but both of us were awed by the density of crabs we had two five gallon buckets of crabs but we could have fished for hours in 10 feet of water if we had the correct chicken wire nets. We did try a shallow four feet set but got only 2 crabs; they were most definitely in the deeper areas. In 2010 Nott island Bay and towards Essex had thousands of crabs most likely hundreds of thousands of crabs. We never set the trot line again but after that experience I had a new understanding for the amount of blue crabs our coast now contained, and what shore crabbers see is just but a fraction of what was in the Connecticut River. The crabber I talked to was correct: you did need to see it to believe it; we did and it was incredible.
Watching more boats launch with crab traps last weekend means the CT River fishery in 2012 is still improving. The evenings of August 17 and 18 had the shore crabbers at night having trips into the 80 and 90 crab counts. Small crabs continue to increase from Old Saybrook to Essex, helping the catch rates to rise. At this rate we may approach or surpass 2010, other than an overwintering population in North Cove these crabs in the CT River arrived here from other areas. It seems they continue to arrive, more and more every day, excepting any weather events the October fishery in the CT River may surpass that seen in 2010.
Thank you for all the reports – every observation is valuable as we learn more about our blue crab population. Email blue crab reports to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Search for Megalops is part of a Project Shellfish/Finfish Student/Citizen Monitoring Effort Supported by a 2005 grant to The Sound School from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant #2005-0191-001.
The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.
Program reports are available upon request.
For more information about New Haven Environmental Monitoring Initiative or for reports please contact Susan Weber, Sound School Adult Education and Outreach Program Coordinator at email@example.com