Monday, April 28, 2014

2014 Connecticut Blue Crab Special Report #4

From Tim Visel at The Search for Megalops:

The Search for Megalops – Special Report #4 Habitat Failure Concerns
April 2014
The Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center
Inter-District Marine Education Programs
Capstone Project ISSP Blue Crab Monitors
Blue Crab Research in Long Island Sound 2014

  • The Habitat Observations of Fishers – An Agricultural Example from the Past
  • A New Viewpoint about Resource Use and Fishers
  • Why is the New England Blue Crab Explosion so Important To Habitat Refugia
The post (Megalops Special Report #3, April ’14) had just come out when I noticed the 1898 date- it should have been 1998!  Although lobsters also suffered a die-off here between 1898 to 1905, the more recent date was 1998 to 2008. That’s a long time to wait to reclaim lost lobster habitat. But that could be happening right now, as it did in the 1920s. I do have reports that larger lobsters are moving back into western Long Island Sound.

The fact that Southern New England has had lobster die-offs approximately one century apart holds much to the confusion, but as mentioned in Megalops Report #5, July 15,  2013, a jump in blue crab abundance occurred in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, all took a decided “bump up” in 1998. What was bad for lobster larval stages was somehow beneficial for blue crabs. Anyone interested in the 1898 lobster die-off should read Dr. Scott Nixon’s Narragansett Bay account of the event found in IMEP Newsletter #12 and the IMEP Habitat Newsletter #6 both under The Blue Crab Forum™ Fishing, Eeling, Oystering and thread (the lobster die-off 1898 and The Great Heat.)

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 1998 lobster die-off was that it was predicted in 1985 by then a Yale Professor Dr. Donald Rhoads in one of the first Long Island Sound workshops in 1985. In the face of increasing Sapropel (organic sludge in high heat) in shallows he detailed a habitat compression event in which catches of adult lobsters would dramatically increase before a population crash, which they did.  What happened?  After some turn of the century high catches, lobsters CT catches bottomed out at 300,000lbs in 1955. (A Marine Resources Management Plan for the State of Connecticut) reaching 2 million pounds in 1985, a catch not recorded in Connecticut since 1892.  Just before the 1998-99 crash Connecticut lobster catches had soared to 3.6 million lbs in 1998, but declined to only 226,000 lbs by 2012, a decline associated with rising water temperatures. Dr. Rhoads was one of the presenters at a NOAA Long Island Sound Issues Resources, Status and Management, May 10, 1985 conference held at the US Department of Commerce (NOAA) offices in Washington DC.  The conference proceedings were published and released to the public on April 14, 1987.  Dr. Donald Rhoads talk was titled, “The Benthic Ecosystem”.  In his paper, Dr. Rhoads mentions Long Island Sound as containing areas of bottom that experience “super critical” organic loadings, and these contribute to the formation of sedimentary sulfides and high sediment oxygen demands. With rising temperatures, oxygen levels naturally drop in sea water, and are subject to enhanced impacts in basins- first in the deeper waters and then if continued spreading out to the edges. This was known to impact crustaceans (lobsters and crabs). As low oxygen conditions spread these “commercially important predators may be compressed into an ever decreasing aerobic (oxygen sufficient) environment. The immediate perception may be one of increased catch per unit effort by fishermen. As a result, maximum commercial yields may be obtained just before there is a crash in the exploited populations.”  The lobster die-offs that started in CT in 1998 was a habitat failure for larval forms in the east and a habitat “compression” die-off of adults in the western Long Island Sound as predicted some 13 years before it occurred.  It had gotten hot again.

Soon after blue crab populations in Southern New England all increased – it was the habitat reversal between these two species not seen in New England for a century.

Are We In A Habitat Reversal – Cooler Temperatures With More Energy?

Two cool winters and an incredible increase in storm energy have blue crabbers nervous; could we be at a peak of a 100 year cycle?  Possibly.  What researchers did not follow (except perhaps Nathanial Bowditch) was the climate pattern known as the NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation).  The NAO after decades of being positive (generally warmer in northern areas in the 1980s and 1990s) turned sharply negative, predicting colder temperatures and increases in storms for the Northeast. Now frequently termed “the new normal” but the “new” part is I feel misleading—this isn’t new at all, but according to core studies (IMEP Newsletter # 15, April 2014) very old. Connecticut has had according to core samples, several “habitat reversals before” and perhaps the best example or clue we can find for length and severity of past habitat reversals is from Native American shell middens. As of April 22, 2014, in fact, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center is projecting the NAO to approach a negative 1.5 making it a negative phase average since 2008. All the current models show the NAO turning negative. A negative NAO phase has been in the past associated with cooler temperatures and a rise in coastal storms for New England.  Periods of warmth followed by cooler temperatures having an influence regarding the abundance of fisheries exist in the historical literature.  In 1902, New England’s halibut landings collapsed and as the warming continued, catches declined to 1945, and slowly rebounded as New England water temps grew cooler.
When you examine fishery failures in the landing statistics, they often follow a habitat failure, and surprisingly a huge increase in landings just before the resource collapses. Frequently fishers are blamed for the collapse, but they had little to do with the changing NAO or changing habitat conditions.  New information (from old fishery reports) indicates that has even happened offshore in the New England Halibut fishery mentioned above.  By 1912, when the first otter trawls were utilized here from earlier bottom beam trawls these nets at first were blamed for the decline in halibut abundance. But the halibut retreat had actually started a decade before in 1902 as New England waters were gradually warming into The Great Heat 1880-1920.  By 1912, halibut were in full retreat to cooler waters in the north. Trip reports from the period mention finding concentrations of halibut in increasingly deeper (cooler) waters.

According to Nelson J. Huntley (born in 1837 and became a halibut fisher at age 14) he wrote about The Passing of The Fishing Fleet in 1906. In the 1840s some forty schooners sailed from Niantic, Connecticut for cod and halibut but by 1869 the “old fishing grounds were becoming exhausted.” (The Passing of the Fishing Fleet by Nelson J. Huntley 1906 reprinted, East Lyme Public Library 1997.)  By 1882 the Niantic Connecticut fishing fleet was gone. A new port to the north closer to better fishing grounds was to be the new cod and halibut capital, and in the increasing heat, ice rather than boat wells became a dominant business advantage. We would come to know that “new fishing” port as Gloucester, Massachusetts.

In the coldest of times, halibut and cod were close to Connecticut and fishing vessels then had a “well,” a section of hull that allowed sea water to enter and “with nearby grounds and cool weather, the well method kept fish alive”, but as Mr. Huntley describes on pg. 19, with warming surface waters, halibut and cod congregated and “a crowded well that was likable to become another Black Hole of Calcutta”.  Ice was now a necessity and the limits of better grounds limited by lengths of time to hold ice.  It wasn’t that the grounds became “exhausted” rather as waters warmed, the fish moved north and longer distances now to catch halibut and hold ice to prevent spoilage meant the fleet moved also. When faced with declining habitat conditions fish will often “move.”

This Newsletter is a little long and goes into some of the areas mentioned during some recent posts. Most of the states are now showing much larger declines in blue crab populations then originally suggested. But no need to panic, blue crabs display a high degree of habitat persistence.  This habitat persistence is related to its life cycle biology, and it serves blue crabs well; it needs to mate only once and can raise several broods in one season.  So if two cold winters come in a row, it took 19 in a row to reduce catches from 1912 to 1962 here in New England. Blue crabs will come back especially if the negative NAO pattern breaks. One of the reason’s I feel that blue crab cycles are so perplexing is that they have such a powerful reproductive capacity. From a peak Blue Crab year in 1912, it wasn’t until 1955 after several almost continuous hurricanes did it reach a low point.

The change in Blue Crab habitat quality /survival happened in 1998, so it’s not an instant void. Blue crabs will even if the cycle is ending, be here for a long, long time. Some emails suggest a complete failure but I don’t believe that will happen.  I go into some policy areas and these views are my own; and do not reflect the Sound School or the EPA Long Island Sound Study on which I serve on both the Citizens Advisory and Habitat Committees although no one on the EPA Long Island Study Management Board should be surprised by them.  Since returning to the Long Island Sound Study in 2005, after a long absence, I have been very concerned about some aspects of water quality study and its emphasis upon nitrogen, encouraging the study to look also at long term climate patterns and fish/shellfish cycles of abundance. But this is what I feel, the void in habitat information (including blue crabs) is now huge and in 2012, we started a different newsletter: “Habitat information for Fishers.”  This has been changed to Habitat Information for Fishers and Fishery Managers to reflect a broader cooperative role for both as part of IMEP outreach to coastal communities. I want to thank The Blue Crab Forum™ for also posting there—IMEP newsletters as well under Fishing, Eeling, and Oystering thread. With the current concern about Blue Crabs cycles IMEP #13 (March 24th) might be of interest to blue crabbers. The season opens in a few days; I hope to see you crabbing.
Tim Visel
The Habitat Observations of Fishers
With so many southern states now showing dramatic declines in small blue crabs, particularly New Jersey questions have come in about Connecticut. I must admit I am coming into this Blue Crab study rather late, much of my previous research was shellfish related- for three decades mostly clams and oysters, which after they set, they don’t move. So, it is much easier to monitor them now and in the past.  However, I was fortunate to have “mentors” who took the time to share hundreds of years of habitat observations in an informal way with me.  Little was written but a strong oral history persisted here about climate change and fisheries patterns for shellfish and finfish well into the 1970s.  Much of the time I draw from old fisheries or agricultural texts looking at similar observations to see if any parallels can be seen, today in fisheries and more often than not I find them. My early experiences with retired commercial fishers served to predisposition me to habitat observations so when I see it in a book, I can easily recognize it.

Many articles have appeared recently about the small crab decline and the thread (Blue Crab Forum™ general discussion) has certainly been of interest to many with good reason and attention given to blue crab predators such as striped bass to our south.  I was fortunate to have such Megalops reports about striped bass predating upon Blue Crabs here since the start of the Megalops Newsletters. It was striped bass fishers that told me that blue crabs were near our Sound School- out in the open and stripers feasting upon them (at night) or leaving the Housatonic River heading east  in 2011.

The predation of small blue crabs without cover must be enormous and not only from stripers but other fish as well.  An observation of gut cavities (stomachs) is a science in itself. Large amounts of prey do favor predators – that is natural and part of the value of observations. It is a balance between prey and predators that we may or not like. A large striped bass (or any top predator for that matter) has to eat, with the consequences that we can measure. When the predator population is high and a habitat failure occurs for its primary prey a fishery failure is almost certain.
One of the more famous speeches about observation of natural habitats and prey, and talked about for several years here in Connecticut was a speech made by David McClellan Kelsey of Killingworth in 1885 (W.L. Stone, 1888, The Family of John Stone, one of the first settlers of Guilford Connecticut).

Mr. Kelsey, born on January 8, 1862 in Killingworth, formerly an Old English name for two English Lords Clinton and Kenilworth.  (I was able to visit these two neighboring kingdom castles in the UK many years ago). William Kelsey arrived with Thomas Hooker and Mr. Kelsey David McClellan Kelsey of Killingworth gave a speech before the Farmers Convention, December 1885, State Board of Agriculture regarding the Game Birds and Game Laws of Connecticut, (page 167).

In the 1880’s as the weather moderated crows became abundant and with them a decline in song birds. It was a classic predator prey relationship.  Warmer winters then meant better survival of birds including ducks (to the delight of a growing “guide” business on the lower Connecticut River marshes). Laws were passed protecting game as hunting restrictions and “posting” private lands, but Mr. Kelsey rose to the surprise of the General meeting, and despite some concerns about his young age (Mr. Webb speaks about that in the official minutes printed later): “When I saw him get up, young as he is, I really felt doubtful about what was coming, but I tell you, the best things have come and I rise to thank him – standing (Applause). We talk about the protection of birds, legislation will do a great deal, but public sentiment will do more.”  (Applause).

It took more than some thought to publically read a paper now part of the meeting minutes- in front of such a group at the age of 24.  Although Mr. Kelsey did support the posting of lands he also realized the role hunters could have, repeating several times “save the birds but kill the crow” an unpopular stand with then a growing naturist movement gaining strength across the country. His topic that night was his habitat observations starting midway on pg 172 of the 1885-86 book published proceedings.

“I am fully aware that in thus taking a stand against the crow, I place myself in opposition to many scholarly and intelligent gentlemen who have defended the crow by precept and example. But I would give more for the keen perception and sharp eyes of a barefoot Yankee boy with the born naturalist in him, then for the opinion of all the city editors in America on this matter.”
(Rekeyed taken from: State of Connecticut Nineteenth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Connecticut Board of Agriculture, 1885. Printed by Order of the Legislature, Hartford, Conn. Press of the case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1886.

- Mr. Kelsey addresses the Convention:
“In the spring of 1881, I took pains to count and watch the robins’ nests about our place. I found twenty-three out of which only two ever fledged their young. I saw seven destroyed by crows, eleven more gave positive evidence of like violence, while there was only three of twenty-one about which there was any doubt. Now could these young birds have been suffered to live, I am quite sure they would have been of more benefit to our own, and adjoining farms, in that single season, than a thousand crows. Nor am I at all certain that the seven young robins who left their nests  ever reached maturity, for the ravenous crow will not only devour young nestlings and eggs, but will just as eagerly pursue and catch, if he can, well-fledged birds –aye, and chickens, too.  I am well aware that this may sound strange to many of you, for it is a lamentable fact, but nevertheless true, that farmers, are not, as a class, close observers.

Born as they are, in the midst of Nature’s wonders, they seldom pause to take a second look, or give a moment’s thought as to the wherefore of results they see all about them. Thus the great Book of Nature that lies open before them does not teach them as it might. Oh! If farmers would only think and act for themselves. This is why I have brought these thoughts before you, in hopes that by calling your attention to these various subjects, you may be led to attentive thinking and thus to action.”
It was apparent that Mr. Kelsey’s rebuke of just looking at what was “natural” must have been nothing short of sensational – Mr. W. Leete Stone mentions this speech in his book years later.

So reading what Mr. Webb said, I did some checking and Mr. Kelsey did make more speeches in the years ahead and in a very public way. He was a leader in bringing music education to Public Schools and was an early officer of the National Education Association. He also authored Patriot songs for meetings of the Grand Army of the Republic in reunions (called encampments back then).  His songs as one General mentioned were important to bringing the war wounds to an end.

It took courage to stand up and say basically “look for yourselves” but he had done his home work; he had monitored the robin nests for many years before he spoke. And he was acknowledged and praised for his contribution to the meeting. After all he was close to the situation and was as he described himself a “close observer.”

A New Viewpoint About Resource Use and Fishers
Fishers have the same unique advantage – they can observe what they experience. They experience habitat conditions every time they fish. Over time, they acquire a vast knowledge of habitat conditions. While most of management efforts have been monitoring the catch (which is of course important) very little has been available for fishers input regarding habitat. That always was not the case: the historical fisheries literature always contained fishers’ statements or points of view; the writers didn’t always agree but at least they included them.

One of the most favorite examples I use currently is Dr. Nelson Marshall and his famous bay scallop research of Niantic Bay.  From early University of Rhode Island Marine Station Reports, (I can recall some tense meetings with him discussing this very topic) about red weed or brittle weed as a preferred setting vegetation for bay scallops.  In Dr. Marshall’s much recognized paper about Niantic Bay Scallop Fisheries - on page 100 is found this passage: “It was evident that the small branching algae (red) observed to be very abundant throughout the River (Niantic) were heavily laden with attached scallops.  In this connection, it is noteworthy that fishermen of the Niantic River refer to such algae as “scallop grass.” Pg 100

Studies of the Niantic River, CT with special reference to the Bay Scallop, Aequipecten irradians,  by Nelson Marshall, Narragansett Marine Laboratory, University of Rhode Island, Kingston RI, 1960.

But it’s not just Bay Scallops.  A one century review of New England’s fishery statistics when compared to climate and habitat conditions matches fisher observations in almost every long term trend in abundance. Several species appear to reverse in catch statistics – perfectly while others reverse in the same habitat profile.

The best matches so far, lobsters and blue crabs (overlapping habitat profile) bay scallops and oysters (similar yet opposite habitat profile).  Some familiar fish species, striped bass and winter flounder, black sea bass and tautog also seem to reverse when climate and energy (storm activity) factors are included.  In the colder 1870s, for example, an 8 pound striped bass was “noteworthy” but by 1910, during The Great Heat, stripers grew to enormous sizes as northern Islands now supported fishing clubs and specially built fishing stands (long walk ways) to use two pound lobsters as striper bait.  Cutty Hunk has a rich habitat history for the striped bass fishery. When The Great Heat ended stripers sizes declined. When the heat returned (1972 to 2012), stripers grew to larger sizes again.  Black sea bass reproductive productivity has increased to enormous levels (noticed by fishers) while the cooler waters preferring Tautog languished. Tautog also showed a huge increase in landings just before a population crash.

Well, as we learn more about climate and energy cycles regarding coralline red algae and bay scallops, we know that the Niantic fishers were in fact correct. In fact, in the historic literature fishers were correct about many things that science is now just catching up, namely the pH levels of marine soils and its relation to clams sets or the impact of structural reef habitat benefits first described as wreck fishing a century ago.  We need to have a greater role for habitat quality information from fishers, my view; we also need to look at many factors not just the “landings.”

What I see is a tendency to isolate the fishery research, apart from just observations, but we need to broaden that; it is important to know rainfall and stream flow data; temperature and energy trends NAO pattern reports, catch statistics, geology of marine soils, but most of all a mechanism for fishers to report more about the fishery itself, and that includes habitat quality and quantity. We focus much effort on the catches while ignoring the natural conditions which provide them.  Mr. Kelsey urged farmers to become close observers of what they see every day. Fisher observations of habitats are critical to our long term understanding; we need those observations of the field, not just from the sky. I realize this runs counters to the digital age in which we now live but fisher observations are important; I think they call that “ground truthing” today.  Looking at what Mr. Kelsey said, I couldn’t have said it better, close observations are indeed important. That is why the Search for Megalops and thanks to many Megalops reporters and have learned a great deal about the latest “New England Blue Crab explosion.”

Many others are still wondering about the change in blue crab indices after 1998, for me it was in the catch and weather statistics; “it got hot.”  Was I surprised by the extent of the reversal?  Yes I was.  I did know about the lobster die-off of 1898 before and the many lobster hatcheries that were built, but researching the increase in blue crabs was difficult – I thank the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office for providing me reports that describe the downturn post 1915 in Massachusetts.  Many Massachusetts communities in the 1950s and 1960s noticed the Blue Crab decline and in comments mostly attributed to “fishers.”  They have been very helpful in my habitat history research.

The amount of 1 to 2 inch crabs the past two years in CT have generally declined and this spring we hope to do a crab “census” a one day count in some of the best crab spots in Central Connecticut.  I have already lined up some Sound School students and volunteers to help. Many New England states used to do a fish census, something that Audubon still does, a brief look at what’s out there in the habitat for birds. I would like to see if we could just do that in a small way for small Blue Crabs.  If you would like to help out as a volunteer with the one day look for small 1 inch to 2 inch crabs, let me know.  Email me at

Why is The New England Blue Crab Explosion So Important?

Many people asked if the post 1998 blue crab populations is here to stay and I respond, yes, it is—for awhile.  If you look at the previous blue crab reversal 1898 to 1931, which ended for the most part in 1938, it was about a half a century.  Even if the “tide” now has reversed for the blue crab, we should have years of great crabbing. The Hurricane of 1938 washed sand from beaches, leaving some of them virtually stripped clean of sand exposing thousands of acres of cobblestones. By 1948, the Chesapeake Bay fishery had declined as eelgrass beds declined but storms now cultivated shallow areas for huge Mya soft-shell clam sets that followed.  It would take another three decades before kelp forests here would cover cobblestones and set the stage for the return of the lobsters here. Combined with a negative NAO, the cooler temps and frequent storms ushered in a higher quality habitat for small lobsters than blue crabs.  This reversal did take time for southern New England which changed again in 1998 (RI, CT and Southern Massachusetts) Southern New England again experienced a jump in blue crab productivity as southern New England (not just Connecticut) lobsters populations crashed. What does this mean?  If you look for trends from history, the blue crab age is nearing midpoint, (compared to the last one) we most likely have another two to three decades before another reversal such as between 1931 to 1955. Habitat reversals are not “instant”, that is the problem by the time we realize that things “have changed” the habitat conditions leading up to these changes have already happened, sometimes decades before.  The transition years 1931 to 1955 are interesting also, as the climate cooled and energy increased blue crab catches became erratic, they fluctuated because they were largely dependent upon a single year class, or “boom or bust.”  Two cold winters in a row was a low Blue Crab year, alternating mild and less severe winter’s a relative “boom”.

Connecticut within the past decade has seen some enormous blue crab years, the 2010 blue crab “explosion” that Southern New England experienced was very similar to 1912.  All this could change rapidly if it got very cold very quickly something that appears doubtful, at least from following the current media reports, three decades from now others of course might have a different view.  So the short answer is they are here to stay, and if so, can we now plan for more crabbers?

One of the things I have noticed just from the few years I have been researching this habitat reversal is a huge influx of crabbers and the need to expend shore access (my opinion) for them. 
The State of Connecticut has put much effort into fishing access; the DEEP Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme is an excellent example here.  The state took title to an Old Salmon Aquaculture facility (before that the Connecticut River Ferry Landing) and made a public park with an extensive fishing dock. The state has put these facilities in along the entire coast, I just visited the David Cini Park in East Lyme by the new railroad crossing over Niantic Bay, here fishers can park and be afforded modest facilities and enjoy fishing along one of the most scenic and productive bays in Connecticut.  A few thousand feet away on the Waterford side is a huge State of Connecticut DEEP boat ramp.  It is outstanding that our state has done this, and my only comment is that state/federal NOAA EPA USFWS partnerships for increased fishing access do not enjoy better public recognition.  Boaters and fishers that come to Connecticut and bring their “tourist dollars” with them, support bait and tackle sales, fuel, food and lodging, etc.  The same could be true for crabbing; the problem is existing dock space is limited for crabbers; I don’t’ think anyone could have predicted the size of blue catches recently, or the size of the blue crab populations in the Connecticut River.  I know I did not, not until I researched Connecticut’s fishery history and was able to obtain current catch reports.

Our state however, has been slow to take advantage of the heat, preparing artificial reefs for an enormous increased reproductivity of black sea bass or rebuilding salt ponds, filled in to prevent Malaria outbreaks (1900 to 1938) or to possibly dig out the invasive reed Phragmities grow so as this to create “new” tidal habitats.  These “new” salt ponds could provide a key habitat for blue crabs even if it turns colder. Those crabs who stay in the lower reaches of our rivers (mostly in dredged channels it appears) have a chance, those that stay upriver are thought to be eliminated by salinity shock (spring melt freshwater) those that venture out to the deeper portions of eastern Long Island Sound are soon faced with winter storms and an impressive array of salt water top end predators so these new salt ponds could help extend the blue crab populations; a habitat refugia.  They would also provide for the construction of blue crab docks and piers to allow crabbers to catch them.  Dock space for crabbers is often limited and some marinas faced with a huge influx of “pole crabbers” in 2010 have restricted crabbing from marina docks and floats.  Can we turn Phragmities into coastal salt ponds rather than current Phragmities eradication methods which often include chemical treatments always a concern in coastal areas. With the return of trees in Connecticut, the organic matter from them (leaves), assures that the Phragmities habitat battle could never be truly won long term.  Although I first proposed the creation of new salt ponds in 2009 after Hurricane Irene and Sandy, and Nor’easter Nemo, these new ponds could possibly now reduce “hydraulic stress” or flooding in coastal areas.

In researching the “Phragmities Problem” I find that many of the denser stands adjoin town road embankments that belong to the town, some even on state and federal property (see soil erosion control practices).  This proposal for new salt ponds would not involve “public taking” or eliminate municipal land from tax roles.  It would reduce an invasive habitat, a fire hazard in some areas and create habitat for shore wading birds and (I recently watched egrets in Bridgeport harbor munching on green crabs one at a time for an hour) tidal fish and crabs.

If anyone is unsure about the impact of dredging to helping blue crabs, please take the time to investigate North Cove in Old Saybrook (Here blue crabs often appear first and hibernate last).  Connecticut has lost many valuable acres of sub-tidal habitat and full habitat services of creeks and salt ponds, first in the Greenwich Malaria outbreak of the early 1900s and railroad causeways in eastern Connecticut (1890s).  We may not be able to quickly control temperature or eliminate coastal energy (storms or hurricanes) but we could possibly make more crab and fish habitats.   That we could do. We could also understand a great deal more about what is important for blue crab habitats if we are heading into a cooler cycle. 

Perhaps, a Capstone habitat project in the near future? 
Its just a few days before the 2014 Blue Crab season, hoping it’s a great Blue Crab year for all crabbers.

The latest Search for Megalops (blue chip) newsletters can be found on The International Blue Crab Blog Spot™, The Blue Crab Info forum™ (Northeast Crab Resources) and Connecticut Fish Talk™ Salt Water Reports.

Email your blue crab reports to:
If interested in helping with the Blue Crab Census, please email me at and register as a volunteer.
Every observation is valuable as we learn more about our blue crab population.
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.
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
The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.
Tim Visel
The Sound School

Friday, April 25, 2014

Chesapeake Bay Winter Dredge Survey to be released in May.

From the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website:

"Winter Crab Dredge Survey Results to be Released Early-May

DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have conducted the primary assessment of the Chesapeake Bay’s Blue Crab population annually since 1990. The survey employs crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March. Sampling during winter when blue crabs are usually buried in the mud and stationary, allows scientists to develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the Bay.

After review of the survey results, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee issues its annual Blue Crab Advisory Report, which helps Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission determine whether management measures are providing adequate conservation for the number of Blue Crabs estimated to be in the Bay during any given year. This ensures that the Blue Crab harvest stays in balance with the population and maintains the strength of the joint management system.

Beginning this year, the preliminary survey results will be released in early May to allow more adequate time for checking data, combining the data sets from Virginia and Maryland, and conducting the analyses that produce the Committee’s final stock assessment, which will be completed later in the month.

Learn more at"

This delay from April to May is good news, as it should allow time for the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) to review and interpret the results before they are released to the public. In prior years, many unsubstantiated explanations for declines in the crab population appeared in the media before CBSAC was able to review the data. Hopefully, a more considered approach will limit confusion about the status of the Chesapeake blue crab population.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2014 Connecticut Blue Crab Special Report #3

From Tim Visel of The Search for Megalops:

The Search for Megalops Special Report #3

Did the 2013 Late Megalops Set Survive?
The Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center
Inter-district Marine Education Programs
Capstone Project ISSP Blue Crab Monitors
Blue Crab Research in Long Island Sound 2014
  • A Blue Crab Census Day –
    The Sound School – Revised, April 1, 2014
    A Note From Tim Visel
    As more and more of the southern blue crab population indices show drops in Blue Crab abundance questions have come in asking if this is the end of the “Blue Crab Explosion” of the last decade.  Probably not – such quick changes are rare in fisheries history.  I was gloomy last year (Report #1, March 26, 2013) but central and eastern Connecticut had a great season.  So there will be Blue Crabs to catch, all attention is now being turned to the Megalops set – which was very late last year (Report #6, October 24, 2013).  Is habitat quality changing and one of the factors might be the first growth of eelgrass.  I also want to thank The Blue Crab Forum™ for opening a spot for my habitat newsletters under the Fishing, Eeling and Oystering thread.  I have obtained many emails about winter flounder habitats (most definitely improving) and lobsters.  Recent reports indicate that large numbers of adult lobsters have moved back into Western Long Island Sound.  It will be interesting if the Western DEEP Trawl Surveys (very important to gaining long term fisheries/habitat knowledge) shows an increase from these lobsters.  Lobsters will-- if sea water temperatures remain cool-- seek to regain habitat “space” lost in the 1998 die off in Western Long Island Sound. 
    For those Blue Crabbers interested in Blue Crab quality might find, the IMEP newsletter of March 24, 2014, “Did Eelgrass Help the Rise of Blue Crabs” found in the Fishing, Eeling and Oystering thread as IMEP newsletter # 13 of interest.
    A century ago the United States Fish Commission started a “Fish Census” conducted in Connecticut until 1958 (New York 1938).  It was a one day (week) statewide (as much as possible) look at both saltwater and freshwater fish populations.  I have several 1940s reports for both Connecticut and Massachusetts, they required enormous staff and on the Cape also Alewife “keepers” that cleared Alewife runs of leaves and sticks during the same time.  Today, the Audubon organization still continues this as a nationwide bird census with volunteers.
    So what about a Blue Crab Census Day?  Just a one or two day look focusing upon the 1 inch to 2 inch size – I have an idea of a simple small crab trap (personally attended) for just counting – a basic presence or absence look – did the late Megalops set survive – all small crabs of course need to be returned without injury back to habitat.
    I hope that some crabbers will join some Sound School students in a “census” for small crabs.   
    See you crabbing,
    A Blue Crab Census Day
    A blue crab newsletter effort was started in the fall of 2010, called The Search for Megalops – Rise of Blue Crabs.  2010 was an excellent blue crab season and the Connecticut River fishery with baited lines and dip nets at times exceeded 50 crabs/hour with six lines and or 6 traps.  New England’s news media called it a New England “blue crab explosion.” From historical accounts blue crabs had not been that abundant here since 1912 during the 1880-1920 so called “Great Heat.”  Connecticut was experiencing the largest habitat reversal in a century – lobsters for Blue Crabs.
    The Search for Megalops on line was established in March 2011 and consists of observations and email reports from blue crabbers mostly in CT.  To date observations indicate a tendency to migrate east as the summer progresses with blue crab waves reaching the Connecticut River on or about the first week of July.
    The Search for Megalops reports are now carried on 3 major websites, the International Blue Crab blog spot™, and Connecticut Fish Talk™ and the Blue Crab info forum™.  It is an observation study only – not qualified for standard operations (QAPPs) although many megalops reporters include, tide, air temperature, cloud cover time of day, and sea water temperature.  Those habitat observations are included whenever possible.
    Why The Census -
    In 2011, three strong year classes were identified 1 to 2 inch – 3 to 4 and 5 inches and larger.  Colder winters reduced catches in 2012, and last year a huge crab Megalops hatch happened in October – thought to be too late to survive.  That being said a week 3 to 4 inch year class (2013) and a strong eastern adult (legal size 5 inches point to point) is all that remains.  The 2012-2013 season did not indicate any previous significant year class survival (1 to 2 inch) and the adults that sustained the 2013 eastern Connecticut season are thought to be the last of the several million blue crab wave that left the Housatonic River in July 2011.  In July 2012 and July 2013 New Haven Harbor held millions of blue crabs primarily in the West Haven/West River shoreline west of The Sound School.
    With recent year class survival uncertain now west of Milford, and very few reports of 1 to 2 inch size blue crabs in all areas, (last summer) many blue crabbers feel that the fishery is near or at a habitat failure.  Several indices to our South such as New Jersey now show step declines (March 3rd 2014).  That recent cold winters has perhaps become recently too cold to have an early or spring megalops set.  That it why the outcome of the fall set is so important – (Megalops #1 January 15, 2014) (Megalops #2 February 1, 2014) and a spring survey to see if any can be found might give us an early look at the 2014 Blue Crab season.
    Several students at The Sound School have offered to help and write a section of the June newsletter for important blue crab locations – New Haven to the Connecticut River.
    - These are the suggestions - 
  • New Haven Harbor – various sites
  • Branford and Farm Rivers
  • Guilford Route 146 -
  • Guilford Sluice Dock
  • Madison/Guilford East River Boat Launch
  • Madison/Guilford Route 1 Bridge
  • Clinton – Town Dock lower Hammonassett
  • Clinton – Town Dock Indian River
  • Westbrook - Town Dock – near Harry’s Marine   
  • Westbrook Rt. 153 Bridge
  • Old Saybrook – Route Oyster River Dredge Cut – across from McDonalds
  • Old Saybrook  - CT River Baldwin Bridge DEEP public Fishing Pier
    Many crabbers have asked recently about the future and do we see (observe) any reproductive success as compared to the 2008-2011 massive year class recruitment period in western CT.  That is a question that needs surveys and observations.  Sound School students could observe and make reports (by writing observation) what they see – important would be the presence of any small blue crabs.  They would then author a newsletter article.
    Outline – One day one time – observation (mid tide to high tide) final schedule depends upon water temperature.  We will provide the log books sheets and small traps, and bait – no fee.  Registered volunteers can pick up materials at The Sound School in New Haven at the aquaculture office or at Captain Morgan’s Bait & Tackle Shop, located at 21 Boston Post Road, Madison CT.  There is no charge for the small trap, bait or log book and volunteers can keep them after the survey (the traps will make good  killifish traps as well).
    Draft at present April – Note *
    April 10 select locations – meet with interested students
    April 15 review protocols
    May 1 issue equipment – traps, nets, lines, etc
    May 15 confirm locations/dates (window will depend upon tides)
    May 20 review data needs – survey should be around June 2nd and June 5th
    June 15 article is ready – combining all site specific locations – prepare newsletter
    July 1 Megalops set prediction for websites – newsletter appears
    * All students may send in observations of crabbing activities throughout the summer at any time.
    The latest Search for Megalops (blue chip) newsletters can be found on The International Blue Crab Blog Spot™, The Blue Crab Info forum™ (Northeast Crab Resources) and Connecticut Fish Talk™ Salt Water Reports.
    This summer is a key Blue Crab observation year; it follows two very cold winters which could have eliminated the fall Megalops blue crab set.  In the 1950s three cold winters in a row were devastating to Blue Crab populations in southern New England.  Blue crabbers all along the eastern seaboard will be watching for our surveys predicting the 2014 Blue Crab Season.  All observations of small crabs that can grow and become part of the fishery are now very important.
    Questions please email me at
    Email your blue crab reports to:
    If interested in helping with the Blue Crab Census, please email me at and register as a volunteer.
    Every observation is valuable as we learn more about our blue crab population.
    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.
    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
    The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.
    Tim Visel
    The Sound School