Scientists Dredge for Lowdown on Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

The fortunes of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs can be read in the bottom of the estuary and its rivers.

Every winter for more than three decades now, teams of scientists in Maryland and Virginia have laboriously sampled the depths with steel-toothed dredges to look for crabs burrowed into the sediment or sand, waiting for spring.

On a relatively balmy day in early February, the crew of the research vessel Bay Eagle from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences spent about six hours checking for crabs by towing a dredge along the bottom of Mobjack Bay, which lies between the Rappahannock and the York rivers on the Bay’s western shore.

Sometimes, the dredge came up nearly empty. Other times, it yielded a motherlode of shells, oysters, clams, worms and anywhere from one to a dozen crabs, rendered uncharacteristically docile by the frigid water. Wearing thick gloves, crew members stooped or knelt on deck to pick through the muck to find the crustaceans, some as tiny as a pinky fingernail.

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