Friday, August 31, 2012

Labor Day crab derby or just another average year?




Here in the Chesapeake Bay we've had predictions of a huge crab harvest in late summer and fall. These predictions stemmed from the unprecedented number of small crabs caught last winter in the Winter Dredge Survey, the annual survey of Bay blue crab populations conducted by Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (see figure above).

Will lots of juveniles in winter turn into lots of adults to be harvested for Labor Day festivities?

An intern at the Crab Lab here at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (officially the Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab) asked just that question this summer. Eric Parks (in picture below), a rising junior at Savannah State University, traveled to seven different areas of Chesapeake Bay to find out how many juvenile crabs were there. These areas were the Middle River, Magothy River, Rhode River, and Patuxent River on the western shore and Eastern Bay, Little Choptank River, and Upper Tangier Sound on the eastern shore.


Crabs were collected by towing a small net at 12 stations in each location, and crabs were counted and measured. Most of the crabs Eric caught were medium to large juveniles - the same age group of crabs that were caught in high abundance as small juveniles in the Winter Dredge Survey.

In most places, there were more crabs than there had been before harvest rules were changed in 2008 to protect more reproductive females. This is good news because it continues to suggest that the harvest rules are helping restore crab populations. However, in most places the number of crabs was not much different than in 2010 or 2011.

If you are out crabbing this Labor Day you should have some success. Just don't be too disappointed if the number you catch isn't much different from the last two years. Things should still be much better than they were in the late 90's and 00's.

Comment on this post with stories of your Labor Day crabbing experiences. I'll be curious to hear whether catches are great or if it's just another average year.

If you are looking for some crabby fun this Labor Day weekend, head to the First Annual Annapolis Crab Derby at the Annapolis Maritime Museum on Saturday (http://www.amaritime.org/) or to Crisfield for the National Annual Hard Crab Derby (http://www.crisfieldchamber.com/crab_derby.htm) which goes on all weekend.




Thursday, August 23, 2012

Search for Megalops SPECIAL REPORT

From Tim Visel of The Search for Megalops:

The Search for Megalops
CT Blue Crab Special Report – Waves of crabs detected perhaps moving both east and west
NOTICE TO MEGALOPS EMAIL LIST = Attention Crabbers – Wednesday August 22, 2012
Information obtained on August 14-18 appears to contain reports that a series of large waves of adult blue crabs are moving along Connecticut’s coast.
These crabs have a very different appearance and don’t resemble the bright white/blue shells of spring and summer.  These crabs might be several years old perhaps the 2006 and 2009 Megalops set survivors.
Crabbing has soared in Branford and Guilford and now Milford.  This is a very good sign for western Connecticut crabbers.  The densest population this year based upon crab catch reports so far has been the New Haven estuary – Quinnipiac, Mill and West Rivers.  We do not know the source of these “new” crabs.
What to look for:
1.       These populations contain yellow face crabs– a piece of yellow around the mouth area.  Yellow face crabs have been observed in Clinton Harbor on August 18th. Yellow face crabs have not been observed in the CT River population as yet.
2.       A significant portion of the population has a second growth claw – a perfect claw that is about half the size of the regular claw – this is a crab that is several years old, it takes several years to re-grow a lost claw, perhaps 2 to 5 years.  Reports of any crabs with a second smaller claw would be helpful.
3.       The shells of these crabs show numerous injuries, sometimes shell damage that has healed, some may even be missing a point entirely.  I have seen two of these crabs in Clinton Harbor last Monday.  The shells show nicks, scratches etc.  It is obvious that they have been in these shells quite awhile.
4.       The underneath areas might have a brown growth, looks like an algal coating of some kind.  The claws may have dark brown patches or black streaks toward the tips.
5.       No female sponge crabs appear to be a part of these populations. 
We may be able to track the movements of these crabs by the date and time they appeared in crabbing spots. (General location is fine).  I would appreciate any reports of these crabs or sightings.
Thanks, Tim Visel
Please email reports to: tim.visel@new-haven.k12.ct.us
Notice: WARNING – These crabs are very large averaging 7 to 7.5” point to point.  They have very strong  claws and I have seen one at Clinton Harbor nearly cut a 5 inch crab in half.  They are what has been described as “rock hard” – hard shells; I banded one at the Indian River, Clinton over the weekend and it took two lobster bands in each knuckle to reduce fighting.  Please exercise caution etc.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

2012 Connecticut blue crab report #8

Reports 7 and 8 both posted today - scroll down so you don't miss #7.

From Tim Visel of The Search for Megalops:

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 8 – August 16, 2012
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!


  • Megalops Hatch underway -females shed sponge eggs and head up estuaries to join males – “Time of the Doubles” soft shell catches increase.

  • Connecticut’s First Crab Fisheries – Did Native Americans leave a history book for species and climate shifts?  Developing a Connecticut habitat history may include The Blue Crab.

  • Western areas must rebuild populations – Megalops set key to the Western CT 2013 Crab Year.   2012 Megalops set could be huge.

  • Public asked to look for Chinese Mitten Crab – a potential invasive species for Connecticut.   DEEP and Connecticut Sea Grant ask for your help.


Megalops Hatch Underway; Females Shed Sponges and Head Upriver – “Doubles” Appear in Central Connecticut

Crabbers were pleased to see very large jimmies with sooks or doublers after August 10th.  Soft shell crab catches greatly increased in central Connecticut.  One Old Saybrook crabber termed it “time of the doubles.” Female crabs are leaving the mouths of rivers and creeks and moving up to join with the males.  Expect some of those 4.5 inches crabs now to shed into legal sizes.  The changes in Central Connecticut were dramatic and widespread. 

The number of “doubles” at Essex Town Dock jumped over the weekend with about half of the legal crabs now protecting a pre-shed female.  Reports from Old Lyme, Clinton, Madison, and Guilford all mention the change.  The lower estuaries are now filled with 2 inch and 4-inch crabs – making certain the fall fishery will be a good one.  “It’s not like 2010, but better than 2011” commented a veteran crabber at Essex.  In 2011, crabbers languished with catch rates fewer than 3 crabs per hour while 20 crabs per hour this year was not uncommon.  After 5 hours of crabbing, he had 65 large blue crabs – a mixture of sevens, some eights; he felt he had broken the state record with a 9.25-inch crab (he had pictures) from a recent trip.

Hand liners except at the highest tides are catching mostly sublegal crabs, sometimes two or three at a time.  Hookups occur often but in deeper holes or river bends on the outgoing tides.  The line feels heavy and crabs frequently can be coached to the shore or dock floats but as soon as they are lifted off the bottom, they let go of the bait.  This happened to me in the Indian River, Clinton and could be related to a water temperature difference.  The hole at which I had the bait in was 71 degrees, a perfect temperature, but at the dock it was 76 degrees at the surface and brackish.  After about a dozen hookups with serious resistance pulling them into shallow water and lifting only to have the crab let go was somewhat frustrating.  One theory was as soon as they felt the warmer fresher water on top they let go.   Another crabber said those are big males with a female and to protect the female, they won’t leave the bottom during the day.   Not certain which one was correct, but it was frustrating none the less.  After an hour of crabbing I left with 2 legal (barely) crabs and returned 22 shorts.  The change in population composition the past week was quick and many conversations mention a tremendous change in smaller crabs at river mouths and an almost simultaneous increase in the doublers upstream. 

Shoreline crabbers at high or moving tides have done well the past seven days with very large crabs but the still and low tides prove the most challenging.  The best crabbing continues to be in Central Connecticut at high tides – of the 17 crabbers I spoke with during this period, all of them had caught crabs – (Central Connecticut Coast).

Western Areas Must Rebuild Populations – Megalops set key to 2013 Crab Year
2012 Megalops set could be huge

2012 Megalops set from female crabs here is now thought to be significant- perhaps with intensity not seen since 2009, Western Areas must rebuild populations that have been lost.   People will remember the summer of 2009 as very hot, sometimes so hot to reflect upon water quality and habitat sustainability- (reference report #7 “Blue Crabs Pick Land over Niantic”).   We had a hot summer (2009) algal blooms occurred and intense bunker (menhaden) fish kill happened from low oxygen in the Branford River, but the Megalops set must have been intense because the number of 2 inch crabs that next April was tremendous, something not seen here for nearly a century.   This summer we may have another great Megalops set- we had a record number of sightings for female “sponge” egg carrying crabs in mid June, especially in Bridgeport/Fairfield and the Clinton Harbor areas.   The prevailing winds have largely been from the southwest, perhaps adding to a potential Chesapeake Bay drift set, courtesy of the Gulf Stream.

With the warm temperatures the west sections may see a huge set of blue crabs- which should be about an inch across now- and could possibly reach the 3 to 4 inch size by October- setting up for another huge 2013 crab year.   It would take a huge set for the west to replace all the year classes apparently missing- gone for some reason (see report #7).  It seems, the west has to start all over again.  It is still too early to say what happened, but some of the crabbers reported the signs of a major blue crab die-off last August and I minimized it, believing it to be just fresh water poisoning from thunderstorms.   Now I believe I was wrong.  I reviewed the reports from last year and the crabbers who were very concerned, and in several reports repeatedly said they saw huge numbers of dead crabs, might have been reporting on a much larger and serious event- a major blue crab die-off- several weeks before Irene. 

From the Megalops report #12 of 2011 Western CT Blue Crab Observations  from crabbers


July 27th- 15 keepers, 3 soft shells; observed about 75 crabs total, 80% 1.5 to 2.5 inches; 10% 3 inches and 10% legal size;  The bottom dropped out of catches turning sharply negative then followed by reports of dead crabs on July 26, 27, and 28th.   Even the run distribution changed after positive numbers: western 50/50 about half of the catch was now legal and even in central sections for the first time it had dropped to 75% legal and 25% sub legal, western and central reports count/keepers surpassed the teens, had climbed into the 20’s and some even higher.   Eastern Reports are so few I can’t comment about catches in general, then the heat and heavy rains hit with one/two punch and catches/reports dropped and turned negative.   If reports continue to mention dead crabs especially that 1.5 to 2 inch crab that could impact the remaining blue crab year, I’m not certain.

Some reports mentioned a 50% drop in catches compared to the last trip and some after catching a few crabs simply gave up.   Just a few days before these areas were good to excellent.   Several reports mentioned the dramatic difference in water temperatures and clarity.    The water near shore felt “hot” or the area was full of brown water.   Three veteran crabbers report of seeing whole dead crabs the following two days.   After heavy rains two other in central areas expressed concern for what had been relatively quiet tidal areas, were now for a period a “rushing torrent of brown water- hot brown water no less.”

“Water was really warm for the first time in 10 years of crabbing here or better, I saw a good number of dead crabs.”


Something happened to these crabs and it is in the millions- what we catch with a string and chicken leg is just a small portion of the total population.  I don’t think anyone would argue that the methods we use in CT can be termed as highly efficient, and in dense concentrations of crab it is effective, nevertheless.   The population of Blue Crabs in western CT long Island Sound was significant in 2011 but now are gone- they have been lost.  Why? I can’t guess but this only signifies how important user groups (crabbers) observations can be- and I missed it.   About 10 reports mentioned dead crabs after rains, some crabbers, one in particular, said he had never seen such numbers of dead crabs in many years of crabbing in western CT and was very concerned about the fishing for next year- he was correct.   It is a poor year to date in the west.

To the crabbers that were concerned about seeing so many dead crabs last July and August, your fears and concerns were apparently justified.   It’s been a century since Blue Crabs were prevalent here and we are just beginning to learn what that means- habitat wise to have them.  That is why I often mention that every observation, every catch report, every survey is important.   The above observations illustrate the significance of these reports. 

If the Megalops set survives in the west this summer that would be a great sign for western CT crabbers, perhaps not for this year, but for next.

Connecticut’s First Crab Fisheries – A History Record from Our First Fishers?  Could blue crab be an indicator species for climate change.   A Science, History, and Archeology – Research Project for High School Students.
         
One of the things I have experienced this vacation and dozens of conversations with blue crabbers is a large influx of new crabbers – some have lived in Connecticut for many years and this is their first summer crabbing. 

A few conversations have pointed to Connecticut’s fishery history – and knowledge about blue crabs, including everything from “I didn’t know blue crabs lived in Connecticut” (a frequent statement) to a surprise of the extent of the current blue crab population (It is huge).  Some were even shocked to see the numbers of blue crabs in a given area such as the Clinton, Madison, and Guilford shores. 

The Clinton Harbor area within the Indian, Hammonasset and Hammock Rivers, the present blue crab population (all year classes) is estimated in the tens of thousands.  The smallest crabs are rarely seen, so the true extent without shallow surveys is difficult to estimate, but a dense blue crab Megalops set can be millions. 

Clinton has several productive crab fishing locations and its one of my frequent stops this vacation.  Questions eventually include Long Island Sound, its relative health, and the many years of news reports about the lobster population declines which is currently at very low levels.  How could blue crabs be so abundant and lobsters so scarce?

When you examine Connecticut’s fisheries history, you do see patterns of fisheries abundance related to climate, temperature, and energy.  It is thought that for blue crabs and lobsters 1998 is a key transition year.  (Fishery production statistics for climate change see paper “Blue Crab Great Years – and Then None?” September 8, 2010)..  

Clinton Harbor is a good study area as it contains both a “core” history in its salt marshes and evidence of Connecticut’s first fishers – a local Native American people called the Hammonassets.  Coastal Native Americans were very aware of New England’s coastal marine resources “seafood” and the first clam bakes are attributed to them.   The shad bakes (roasts) still celebrated in the Essex/ Old Saybrook area is another direct descendant of earlier fishing practices.  They appreciated nature’s bounty and we know that fish and shellfish were important food sources.  Therefore, Native Americans may have left a historical record for us about long term climate, temperature, and energy system impacts to fish and shellfish populations.   The resource use record therefore may mirror habitats, a “habitat history.”  We call those records today shell middens - heaps of discarded shellfish shells, oyster, clams, and bay scallops, but also blue crab remnants, conch shells, and fish bones.   Blue crabs might be a good indicator species of climate change or pronounced habitat shifts.

In times of great heat (which we are presently experiencing) shell heaps (middens) might contain greater numbers of blue crab claw tips, soft shell clams, and oysters – all do better in dry and high heat periods.  Layers of lobster beaks, hard shell clams, and bay scallops could signal colder, more energy filled periods.  These species do seem to change prevalence (positions) in more recent habitat histories.  At the turn of the century midway into The Great Heat (1880 – 1920), the soft shell clams sets following the 1898 Portland Gale are legendary in Clinton Harbor.  Bay scallops had long since disappeared from the much colder and stormier 1870s.  It is hard to believe Greenwich, CT being a huge producer of bay scallops, but it was in 1872 – when it was brutally cold here.  As the temperatures warmed after 1880, bay scallops and lobster populations retreated north and collapsed in the late 1890s.   Blue crab, oysters, and soft shell clam abundance then soared.

Bay scallops would return to Connecticut and in record abundance during the New England Oscillation (also termed the North Atlantic Oscillation) when colder winters and powerful storms raked Connecticut’s coastline (1950 to 1965).  The 1950s saw record cold, a huge increase in powerful storms but bay scallop production soared.  Bay scallops like cold and energy – it helps maintain their habitats.   If these climate and energy relationships have a habitat/ prevalence or connection they might be apparent in those shells heaps.  When hot, blue crabs, soft shell clams, and oysters become abundant.  In cold periods, lobster, hard clams and bay scallops reign.  Coastal Native Americans so dependent upon seafood would observe changes and perhaps left us a history of their seafood use as long-term environmental fisheries history – hopefully the alkaline shells have buffered our acidic soils so that such a habitat history record still exists.  Even the process of dipping (netting) blue crabs at night so productive here today appears to be an old one, and related to spear fishing.

In a 1958 National Geographic Story of Man Series – Indians of the Americas, Matthew W. Stirling refers to torchlight fishing on pg.  50 – mentioning the importance of seafood to the Algonquin culture.

“In summer, the usual spear fishing method was for two men to out in a canoe at night.  The man in the stern paddled while the other speared fish attracted by the light of a bark torch in the bow.”

If this sounds familiar to the early turn of the century blue crab dipping, it should.  Fishing by light at night is an old practice but an abundant supply made the practice worthwhile (it was productive).  It is the change in abundance and assemblage relationships that midden remains may provide. The study of middens may answer some of our questions about climate change and habitat conditions for both cold and warm water species.

Taking this concept forward will involve high school students reviewing the available scientific records (fisheries) and archeological studies of the past century.   This would include a full review of Colonial fishing records until present.

Most of our Connecticut fisheries history is currently stored at the DEEP Marine Fisheries loft in Old Lyme, CT.  It represents the largest continuous fisheries records from the first legislative acts of the 1870s to the State of Connecticut Fish Commission to the formation of the State of Connecticut Department of Fisheries and Game to the present DEEP Marine Fisheries Division.  In a recent meeting it was asked that this proposal be sent to other scientists, historians, and archaeological practitioners in Connecticut in support of perhaps a much larger environmental habitat history project for the state.  That process is currently underway.   One of the species proposed as a key habitat history indicator is blue crabs.
              
It is a multiyear project that has enormous environmental study benefits from monitoring climate habitat shifts, global sea rise, and contains fisheries management implications. 

I would be pleased to respond to any questions at Tim.Visel@new-haven.k12.ct.us

Public asked to look for Chinese Mitten Crab – a potential invasive species for Connecticut.   CT DEEP and Connecticut Sea Grant ask for your help.

Press Release:  On August 3rd, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Connecticut Sea Grant issued a press release asking for the public’s help in identifying a potential invasive crab species.  The Chinese Mitten Crab (Eriocheir sinensis) looks to be larger than the green crab (Carcinus maenas) also an invasive species and similar looking to the Purple Marsh crab (Sesarma reticulatum) found consuming salt marsh vegetation on New England marshes. 

Distinctive in appearance are its claws (although I have never seen a live specimen) which have hairs on them that look like “mittens”.  This is a species that grows to enormous densities and travel in “pods”.  With the body carapace it can be 12 inches across including the legs. 

The press release is reproduced here for any crabbers that have seen some of these crabs- please, a “do not release” request is in place.  Directions for reporting if you catch one is included in the Press Release. Look to this website for detailed information including photographs:  http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?Q=509026&A=4174

A few key paragraphs are below:

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) and Connecticut Sea Grant today confirmed that a juvenile Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) has been found in Connecticut waters. In late June, the crab was collected from the Mianus Pond fishway on the Mianus River (Greenwich) by Joe Cassone, Conservation Assistant for the Town of Greenwich Conservation Commission. The crab was first delivered to CT DEEP’s Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme, and following examination by CT DEEP and CT Sea Grant biologists, sent to the Marine Invasion Research Lab of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for a confirmation of the initial identification.

“This discovery is of some concern,” said CT DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette. “In high densities, these crabs can damage fishing gear, clog pumps and intake pipes, cause riverbank erosion through their burrowing activities and out compete native species for food and habitat. However, these crabs are relatively new to the Atlantic coast, and at this time it is unclear as to what their effects will actually be.”

“It’s important that people keep an eye out for these crabs and report them,” says Nancy Balcom, Associate Director of Connecticut Sea Grant at the University of Connecticut. “Early detection of new species in our marine or fresh waters can help lead to more options for control and spread prevention. In 2010, there was a reported sighting of a crab in a pond near the Mill River in Fairfield that may have been a mitten crab. Unfortunately, we were unable to catch that crab to confirm its identification.”

Chinese mitten crabs’ claws are of equal size; all but the very smallest (<1 12="12" 860-407-9107="860-407-9107" a="a" across="across" ancy="ancy" and="and" any="any" appear="appear" approximately="approximately" balcom="balcom" be="be" between="between" brownish="brownish" can="can" carapace="carapace" chinese="chinese" claws="claws" contact="contact" crab="crab" ct="ct" dark="dark" deep="deep" do="do" each="each" exact="exact" eyes.="eyes." finding="finding" fisheries="fisheries" found="found" four="four" freeze="freeze" fresh="fresh" fuzzy="fuzzy" grant="grant" greenish="greenish" growth="growth" have="have" hence="hence" ice="ice" in="in" inch="inch" inches.="inches." inches="inches" including="including" individuals="individuals" inland="inland" is="is" it="it" keep="keep" legs="legs" location="location" marine="marine" mitten="mitten" name="name" not="not" notch="notch" note="note" on="on" or="or" please="please" release="release" sea="sea" shell="shell" should="should" side="side" size="size" smooth="smooth" spines="spines" suspect="suspect" that="that" the="the" they="they" tips="tips" to="to" total="total" up="up" was="was" whitish="whitish" width="width" with="with"> water should be investigated, as there are no freshwater crabs in New England.


Thank you for all the reports – every observation is valuable as we learn more about our blue crab population.  Email blue crab reports to tim.visel@new-haven.k12.ct.us

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 susan.weber@new-haven.k12.ct.us

CT 2012 Blue crab report #7

From Tim Visel with The Search for Megalops:

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 7 – August 9, 2012
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!


·         Crabbers move to deeper cooler waters – boaters seem to do better – Central CT crabbing shifts as summer temperatures rise.
·         Dipping for crabs by torchlight, Noank, CT at the turn of the century; Blue Crab Skiff Plans available soon.
·         Keep those crabs alive! The knuckle bander process. Crabbing surges in central Connecticut.
·         Regional differences become apparent – concerns for Megalops set in Western, CT.


Crabbers move to deeper, cooler waters

Most of the crab catches from shore now occur at high tides: two crabbers commented, “It’s getting too warm- water temperature.”  A couple of crabbers last year reported a change over from place to deeper areas when water temperatures hit 72⁰F; after that they used a small skiff with crab pots.

Central CT catches at low tide decreased measurably and many small crabs are caught then.  This was especially the case in the Clinton/Madison area which saw the numbers of just 5 inch crabs suddenly increase; many were still too “short”.  A Clinton Harbor crabber retained 23 crabs, but estimated he had returned over 50 small crabs.  Dozens of small 3 inch crabs were observed at both the Oyster and Indian Rivers; crabbers at the pier next to the Baldwin Bridge DEEP boat launch also commented about the dramatic increase in small crabs.  Obtaining the “bottom” temperatures seemed like a good idea, especially if the 72⁰F temperature is a border line perhaps for larger crabs.  A slight modification to an inexpensive thermometer and a crab line with a 2 ounce sinker gave me a quick way to check some temperatures at some popular blue crab locations over the weekend.

Saturday, July 28 – Temperature readings.

Essex Town Dock Deep end – 6 feet, low tide 79⁰F: 11:40 a.m.
Essex Town Dock Shallow – 1 foot, low tide 79⁰F: 11:50 a.m.
Rt. 95, Baldwin Bridge, Old Saybrook; DEEP Fishing Pier, shallow end 78⁰F: 12:01 p.m.
Old Saybrook, Sheffield St. Town Dock (North Cove) 75⁰F 1:02 p.m. (DLW)
Old Saybrook Route 1, Oyster River Dredge Cut 74⁰F 3:24 p.m. DLW+ 2hours
Westbrook Town Dock, Hammock Rd 72⁰F 3:38 p.m. mid tide
Clinton Public Crab Dock, Indian River 74⁰F 4:28 p.m. high tide
Clinton Town Dock Riverside Ave. (Hammonasset River) 72⁰F high tide

Catches in the 72⁰ to 74⁰ range were better than higher; Essex crabbers left with no crabs at low tide; I was surprised to see how warm it was.  However, high tide was a completely different matter with 7 and 8 inch crabs at high tide.

About the middle of August last year, crabbers moved to deeper cooler waters, but with this year’s heat, we may be seeing that shift earlier.  The warmer temperatures did not seem to bother the two inch crabs which surrounded shallow water baits.  Crabbers that had baits into deeper areas commented that it was better at high tides.  It’s thought that cooler waters come in with the tide, and cooler temps, higher salinities, and perhaps increased oxygen levels help adult crabs’ more than the smaller ones.  Crab respiration increases with temperature, a rise of 10⁰ C, the respiration roughly doubles; in other words, a respiration rate of 68⁰ F is twice that at 50⁰ F.  Warm water contains less oxygen so the perception (observation) that larger crabs move to deeper cooler waters has a basis in biological fact.  Seawater at near freezing can contain 12 mg of oxygen per liter of water, but at 86⁰ F can drop below 5 mg/liter.  Extremely high temperatures can kill marine organisms by suffocating them.  I see some first time crabbers trying to keep large 7 and 8 inch crabs alive in a small pail of warm water.  Occasionally many of the crabs perish in such small amounts of hot seawater, and frequently suggest a cooler with an ice pack keeping crabs cool and moist rather than in small water pails.  It’s a frequent mistake but directly related to warm water suffocation on a much wider scale; we usually call such widespread events as die offs and frequently they occur during the hottest period of summer water temperatures.  Crabs (and lobsters) have the ability to alter metabolic processes out of water if kept cool and moist can survive for many hours and if given the choice will avoid such oxygen containing water.  These warm water die offs are frequently found in the blue crab historical fisheries literature.

In Alabama and even in Chesapeake Bay, extremely low oxygen in coastal waters often records blue crabs walking out of them, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands.  In southern areas this event is known as “Jubilees,” thought to reflect the ease in capturing a potential dinner.  In the Chesapeake they are known as crab wars.  When faced with extremely low dissolved oxygen, blue crabs emerge and can crawl out of the water (Blue Crab- Callinectes sapidus by William F. Van Heukelem, University of Maryland).
A mini “Jubilee” occurred in Connecticut a few years ago noticed by residents of Niantic Bay during very hot period in August.  Stagnant hot algae filled water became oxygen depleted.  Blue crabs headed for land in apparent effort to escape the low oxygen waters and died in the process.  The account is in the WTNH (Channel 18(archives with the title: “Crabs Picking Land Over Niantic Bay”.  On August 7, 2009 this was reported by Jamie Muro from the description of Niantic River algae blooms and reported air temperatures; it’s a safe bet that hypoxia killed blue crabs in shallow water.
Connecticut River crabbers (pots) now report very good catches and crab floats – pier areas have been good also.  The shore hand liners, catches at low tide here have been much lower than at high waters – Central CT crabbing has been generally good, better than last year. The large increase in small 3 to 4 inch crabs is a positive sign for even a better fall fishery.

Dipping Crabs in Noank at the turn of the century – Nighttime netters from small skiffs count crabs by the bushel.

12 ft Blue Crab Skiff Plans available soon from The Sound School

Numerous accounts from the turn of the century (pg 645, The Crab Fisheries US Fish Commission Bulletin, 1887) talk about dipping crabs by torch light in a two person row boat.  A small skiff with a forward torch and dipper with a rear sculler, a single oar mounted to a pin or leather strap.  This allowed the boat to be propelled quietly from the stern (sculling) while allowing the person forward to have a clear view to net crabs (the water must have been a little clearer back then).  The coves and shores of Noank 1920s are frequently mentioned for catching blue crabs from flat bottomed skiffs.  These skiffs were often low profile craft that could be both rowed- two oars or skulled with one rear oar.  Sculling itself was quite an art but having watched a couple of fishermen do it, it was quite effective, especially in shallow water.  You could push and direct the skiff quickly from the transom, often standing, to see what was ahead and receive signals from the “dipper” in the bow.  Several late summer dock conversations the past two years had crabbers wishing to reach the deeper and cooler waters of late summer to catch crabs, but unable to do so, for lack of a small flat bottom shallow water skiff.  When asked about it, I’m partial to the Brockway design, a flat bottom plywood skiff once produced in Old Saybrook, CT.  The Brockway skiffs originally were built to the design of the Connecticut River Duck and Turtle boats of the last century.  They were low profile skiffs, excellent for duck hunting and setting and hauling turtle traps then.[1]

But today the design survives for many fisheries, and sports fishing is one of them. Originally built as an oak frame planked skiff, at Brockway Boat Works of Old Saybrook, it was later changed the planked vessels and gave way to the plywood skiffs wide and narrow versions of various lengths.  In the middle 1950s higher sides added to make them suitable for use in the open Long Island Sound.  I used an old low profile (1959) Brockway in high school, a 12 foot skiff built in the tradition of the successful Connecticut River Duck and Turtle Boats (also called CT River Guide Boats as for use by hunting camps in the 1920s). 

This skiff belonged to Charles Beebe, late of Madison, who continued to use it for river fishing until the 1970s.  I have it now thanks to Bruce Beebe, and should have the design plans shortly.  It is a transition skiff built in the old thwart and riser style but out of high grade marine plywood.  As it is a low profile version it makes an excellent blue crabbing bay and cove skiff- sculled or rowed.  Cost of a vessel has been a concern, especially in today’s times but this skiff can be built by a handy person requiring just a few power tools.  It can be built from higher grade exterior A C plywood and standard pine stock from a lumber yard or home improvement store.  Two larger high sided versions a 14 foot skiff and 16 foot skiff plans are already available on our website.  Plans and directions, “How to Build a Brockway Style Skiff” were first published in 1982 and reprinted and can now be found on our school website: for the 14’ Brockway, #35 and corrections #36; the 16’ skiff at #40 and corrections #41. These skiffs are the higher sided version, not the low sided skiffs for the rivers and coves a century ago.

Many people have built Brockway style skiffs from these plans and pictures /plans are available at no fee.  If you are interested in seeing what this vessel is like, one of the few surviving Connecticut River duck and turtle skiffs can be found at Essex, CT.  During the Great Heat 1880-1920 warmer winters and unusually warm springs caused a surge in game bird populations – geese, rail and brant duck (bird) hunting became big business as out of state hunters turned to local fishermen to guide them into the Connecticut River marshes.

For those interested in this unique CT River skiff design only a few survive to modern times.  The best example of this skiff I have found can be seen at the Connecticut River Museum Steamboat Dock, 67 Main Street Essex, CT. (http://ctrivermuseum.org).  It is in the small house boat exhibit room and dates from the 1920s.  This 16 foot skiff was used for bird hunting (rail and brant) in the Connecticut River marshlands was sculled allowing access to the bird hunters at the bow seats.  The skiff is on display at the Connecticut River Museum and is in outstanding condition and belonged to Captain Suter a local CT River guide (rail boat circa 1920s).

Unfortunately Brockway Boat Works closed in 1997 with the passing of Earle Brockway and the availability of these hard chine flat bottom plywood skiffs has lessened.  They did not draw much water, allowing them into the shallows, and could be beached with ease (non-extensive keel structure); rolled on planks, rowed well (coves, creeks and bays).  Having spent many hours in Mr. Beebe’s 12 footer blue crabbing, the low profile version allowed easy netting.

Years ago some crabbers will recall several Connecticut marinas had fleets of plywood Brockway’s for rent to crabbers and snapper blue fishermen.  Clinton Harbor’s Holiday Dock for instance once had a collection of Brockway’s, but no longer.  However many Brockway’s have been built from the 1982 University of Rhode Island/United State Agency for International Development (USAID) that Mr. Brockway approved for Peace Corps efforts).  Several Brockway style skiff builders have shared their experiences (and learning curves) on the Internet.  Some even built them for resale.  In 2010, United States Agency for International Development reissued the 1982 Brockway skiff construction manual and is available at: http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNAAN485.pdf

So, if you have modest power tools and are handy at woodworking, you will find that a Brockway style skiff for crabbing is rarely surpassed.

If you would like to obtain a set of plans, let us know. We have put the 12 foot skiff plans (FFA Entrepreneurship Boat Building Kit) in high gear and they should be ready shortly.

If you would like a set of plans mailed to you for the cost of postage, or emailed to you free, please clearly print your email address and they will be sent when the plans are ready.
If you send us your home address we will send a hard copy to you when they are ready, and we request postage if mailed to you.

The 14 and 16 foot skiff Brockway plans are free on our website.  For those interested in learning more about the Peace Corps Brockway effort, please visit our publications directory at www.soundschool.com/directory.html  For the 14’ Brockway, see #35 and corrections #36; for the 16’ Brockway, see #40 and corrections #41.

For fishermen wanting to learn more about the Brockway boat yard, Brockway Boat Works or the Brockway style of construction, the Branford Adult Education Program will hold an evening workshop on Building a Brockway Style Skiff on Thursday, November 15th at Branford High School.  Please enroll at www.erace-adulted.org or call 203 488 5693 for more information.  There is a fee of $39 for the presentation and includes a discussion of the Brockway boat with PowerPoint slides of the Brockway, (the boat yard no longer standing); additionally copies of the 14’ and 16’ Brockway plans are included with the registration and will be given out during the class.  The last presentation had former and present Brockway owners exchanging accounts of both Mr. Brockway and the Brockway skiff uses.

As August temperature approaches, look for the deeper cooler areas for the best crabbing. Shoreline hand liners should look for higher tides.

Keep those crabs alive! Crabs are valuable as seafood. Catches surge in central CT.

I have seen several pails of blue crabs likely wasted this summer in the high heat.  Blue crabs will attack each other in a bucket and in the water for that matter and if crushed or cut can quickly bleed to death in high heat and absent water (which helps clot the blood).  It is easy to miss because it is not red blood and had therefore hard to see but claw loss is visible and a sign of injury. This has occurred when very large 7 and 8 inch crabs mixed with smaller sizes.

Dead blue crabs and lobsters spoil quickly in high heat and out of oxygen containing water (thus the extensive live lobster retail trade today and dropped claws and separated abdomen will “fan out” exposing the once covered thorax exoskeleton.  If the crab is limp and appendages dangle, it is most likely spoiled.

What works is a cooler with some of those pre-frozen ice packs and a series of wet cloth towels – one ply so that the cloth can “breath” – cloth dish towels work great.

Crabs covered in moist cool cloth will be relatively motionless (if not disturbed) and can be kept alive for many hours.  Sometimes I see crabs buried with bags of ice, but the fresh water (if not drained) can kill crabs, and super chilling does bring the crabs’ metabolic rate to very low levels.  Such cooled crabs may appear dead, but given some time to warm up, (not hot) will become active again.

One of the ways to reduce post capture mortalities is to reduce the fighting and killing capacity of the crabs themselves; similar to the lobster industry, by banding them.  My son Willard and his friend Dave Krug in 2010 came up with a system that worked for them.  Willard took his old lobster banding tool and those small lobster rubber bands and after a few trial and error attempts, banded the knuckles (elbow) joint, but not the claw, which is very different from the lobster banding/industry.  With the knuckle banded (using the scissors like lobster bander) which still required rubber gloves the crushing and tearing capacity was greatly reduced if not eliminated.  No longer could the crabs reach out on foot and leap to attack other crabs in a pail/bucket or crabbers for that matter.  After banding a few crabs, it’s a relatively quick process but it immediately cut down on crab waste.

At Clinton Harbor, I watched a bucket transfer which consisted of one mass of tangled and biting crabs clinging in dead grips.  Because the shells were so hard, the shells were not mangled but claws were sliced and crushed in the process only attending to the blue crabs “bad temperament.”   It’s a little more effort to band and requires a banding box, (six to eight inch high plastic tub) a lobster industry bander (we discovered that a wider tap helped spread the band a little better.  (Some of the jumbo crabs in 2010 were so big it was an effort with the standard size lobster band) Blue crabs are placed in this large shallow plastic tub banded and then cool stored.  One word of caution, several crabbers have given excess catches to unsuspecting observers, perhaps not knowing crabs can bite, but in my mind (and 15 years of inshore commercial lobstering experience) lobsters are much safer to handle then blue crabs.  The public expects lobsters to be banded at commercial fish markets etc, and they are much slower than blue crabs.  This probably is the reason the live lobster market has accepted (banding) and live blue crab market never established banding (to my knowledge).  I have heard too many horror stories of people sticking their hand into a “gift” of blue crabs only to emerge into 2 or 3 clinging to hand/fingers.  This will most likely leave the gift recipient with a lifelong memory and a not to pleasant one at that.  Although few crabbers use them I always used rubber gloves when banding; once banded they are quite easily grabbed from the rear.  They can still pinch but cannot fight.  In summation, blue crabs are hard to handle and the larger the crab the worse it gets.  The very hot weather here has led to some significant loss of crabs and there just too delicious to waste.  I have sent a description of the blue crab knuckle band process to Blue Crab Info at http://www.bluecrab.info/forum/index.php and CT Fish Talk at http://www.ctfishtalk.com/ and the blog Blue Crab Forum run by Dr. Matt Ogburn at http://bluecrabblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/2012-connecticut-blue-crab-report-6.html
If you are interested in this process please look at the sites.  They also have crab reports, crab industry discussions and crab research information.

The central Connecticut crab fishery has surged with large crabs.
Late reports mention only a few crabs in western Long Island Sound but Niantic Bay and Thames River, Mystic River have isolated reports of blue crabs. Some Mystic River catches reported from other sources have been “good.”

Regional Differences in late July become apparent – concerns for the survival of the western Connecticut Megalops set.

Regional differences became apparent – central sections now see many small crabs, western areas report few to none; and concerns for Megalops set in western Long Island Sound has been the mention of many crabbers.

The continued absence of post Megalops blue crabs in western areas is becoming more than a question – is now a concern with extremely warm April and May temperatures, small post Megalops crabs (those inch crabs) should have been noticeable by July 1 – July 15, at the latest.  Instead it has been very quiet as per crab catches/observations.  This is at the same time the central sections finds a good supply of overwintered adults (mostly males) in late April and numerous smaller females – June to July.  Reports of western CT blue crabs have been very few so far this year.

The west is apparently missing in the adults’ overwintering size – 5 inches and up, the 3 to 4 inch year class (overwintering 2011 Megalops); the 2 inch size (spring/summer 2011, Megalops sets – and most likely an early Chesapeake drift set and a possible later fall native Connecticut set).  And now a possible Chesapeake Bay early Megalops that set this spring and now is about a 1 inch across (suggested post Megalops growth starting May 15).  We should see another surge of 1 inch crabs this fall from a “native” sponge crab hatch in August-September.  These could make 2 inches by December while the inch size crabs at present (in central sections) could grow to 3 to 4 inches before colder temperatures set in.  All of these growth patterns are dependent as reported by numerous blue crab researchers upon water temperature water quality and food availability.

Why the disappearance of western CT crabs?  That remains an open question; certainly the 2011 crab year was greatly reduced in the central and eastern sections after the somewhat harsh cooler 2010-2011 winter.  However, 2011 saw the west with dense blue crab populations early in the season that appeared to move east as the summer progressed.  This was especially the case in the Norwalk and lower Housatonic Rivers.

With the recent information, barring only sudden changes most of the western crabs did not make it for a number of possible reasons- making observations of this area very important.

If you go crabbing west of the Housatonic River and don’t catch anything, the observation is important.  The appearance of small blue crabs post Megalops set, would be a great sign for next year.  In general best blue crabbing by far appears to be between West Haven and East Lyme at the present.

Thank you for all the reports – every observation is valuable as we learn more about our blue crab population.  Email blue crab reports to tim.visel@new-haven.k12.ct.us

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 susan.weber@new-haven.k12.ct.us


[1] The nighttime torch dip net fisheries were well established in southern states after the Civil War, but as the blue crab became prevalent in Southern New England, the practice spread north (1900s).  In oral history the bays and coves are frequently mentioned in the Noank area (See the US Fish Commission Report, The Crab Fisheries pg.645, 1887 by Richard Rathbun).