DOVER — A little before 1 p.m. Thursday, the 32-foot crabbing vessel, Lauren Marie, chugged along the Leipsic River amid the swirling fog and pelting rain.
Like a well-oiled assembly line, brothers Larry and Leonard Voss, of Smyrna, and Trey Holland, of Dover, began to unload the day’s offerings at the dock near Sambo’s Tavern in Leipsic. They expertly tossed extra crab pots onto Leonard’s truck, all the while ensuring that the 90 blue crabs couldn’t escape from their bushels.
After being out on the water since the first lights struck at the horizon at 4 a.m., Leonard said the seven bushels of crabs is a less than favorable harvest.
Slow harvests have been indicative of the state’s declining blue crab population. This season the numbers are down at least by 75 percent, he said. The low numbers have also caused the crab prices to skyrocket from around $80 a bushel to up to $130.
“It’s not just us — it’s up and down the whole coast from Georgia to New Jersey,” Leonard Voss, 57, said.
Rich Wong, shellfish biologist with the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, said in general the blue crab population is unpredictable, fluctuating wildly from one year to the next.
“This year it’s been slow, but we kind of expected that because last year we saw a poor year class of juvenile crabs,” Mr. Wong said.
He averages about 160 million crabs in the Delaware Bay from year to year, but the number swings depending on the juvenile crab recruitment.
For 10 months out of each year, the division samples the juvenile crab population at the bottom of the bay to study the environmental and biological factors as the blue crabs mature.
The number of juvenile crabs per bottom tow scoop display a snapshot of the overall picture. In 2008 the scientists surveyed about two crabs per bottom tow, but in 2009 the number rose to nine, only to dip back down to four in 2010.
In 2011 there were six crabs collected each tow, while this past year the scientists could collect only one crab per survey.
He cited some environmental factors, such as weather patterns, which affect the strength and number of the juvenile blue crabs.
“It’s very unpredictable,” he maintains. For instance the strong winds of fall nor’easters may bring in more blue crab larvae into the Delaware Bay which would increase populations.
The number of adult crabs in an area also affect the juvenile crab crop as the blue crab species are highly cannibalistic. So, Mr. Wong said there is a continued effort on keeping the adult numbers down.
“In any case we see that occasionally through 30-plus years, [the blue crabs] do tend to rebound,” he said.
Mr. Voss has seen evidence of this rebound through his 30 years as a commercial crabber operating along the Delaware Bay and Delaware River. Though he only knows how to doggy paddle, he has been a man of the water ever since his first crab catch at age 8.
He recalled a horrific winter in 1976 when 95 percent of the marine life in the bay was wiped out and the market suffered.
“We were going to need something to swim in here to just get started,” he said. For the next three years the blue crab population was sparse, but then in the 1980s the market changed.
“They pretty much self-regulated themselves, it’s not like it’s a 10- to 20-year rebuilding,” he added.
Commercial crabbers can only harvest in the Delaware Bay and River while recreational crabbers are permitted to catch in the rivers and inland bays.
“Delaware is only state that does this,” he said.
Male crabs have at least 5 inches to legally harvest. Female crabs, which are biologically smaller, can be harvested as well, but cannot be carrying any eggs at the time of harvest. Mr. Wong said the blue crabs are an extremely prolific species, that can lay up to 1 million eggs up to five times a year.
The commercial crabbers do not have a quota, but can only purchase a license for up to 200 pots for crab harvesting.
For Leipsic, a town only 9 miles from the bay, the stock of those crab pots is crucial.
“This whole town is centered on commercial fishing,” Mr. Voss said.
“If the water business is great the community does a little bit better.”
He docks the Lauren Marie nearly every day next to Sambo’s Tavern, a local seafood restaurant that acts as an inn of sorts of hungry watermen. The tavern is a regular buyer — if possible, ordering up to 12 bushels at a time.
“We’ve had a very good year this year,” said Elva Burrows, the tavern’s owner, however, she did note that at times the restaurant does run out of crabs.
Ms. Burrows and her husband Ike have manned the hidden seafood gem for the past 28 years, and are used to pinching in when the market is down.
But there may be hope for the crab market in the following year, Mr. Wong said. Even though there are less adult crabs to harvest, the next crop of juvenile crabs in the Delaware Bay now have a stronger chance of surviving until adulthood since there are less adult crabs snacking on them.
Time will tell, as the scientists begin surveying the juveniles heavily this August.
“It’s kind of like a catch-22,” Mr. Wong said. “As in anything in ecology there’s always a good and bad part of the story.”