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|Posted: Fri Apr 27, 2018 2:21 pm Post subject: Megalops Report #7 - Delayed Report -
|The Search for Megalops
“You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report”
New England Blue Crab Populations Retreat
As Colder Winters Take Toll
Megalops Report #7 - December 30, 2017
April 26, 2018
• A Warm Fall Continues - Pattern Lasts Three Years
• The Fall of Oysters and Blue Crabs New England 1915-1968
• Blue Crab Models Often “Noisy” for Energy and Brittle to Temperature
• A Rhode Island Blue Crab History – The 1904 Soft Shell Fishery
• Will Lobsters Return to Connecticut?
• Blue Crab Habitat Compression
• Have Blue Crabs Stopped Molting?
A Note From Tim Visel
I obtained many emails this past blue crab season that often asked “What happened?” or “Where are the crabs?” This past year was very slow for most blue crabbers. If you went crabbing in a river that had a dredged basin or channel, chances are you got some good catches. However, if you went to shallows, crabbing was often poor. The blue crabbing 8 or 10 years ago was that not seen in Connecticut or southern New England in a century. One thinks of Chesapeake Bay for the blue crab not usually Narragansett Bay, but at one time fishery area managers wrote about a Rhode Island soft shell crab fishery for the blue crab in 1904. A very warm period, 1880 to 1920, saw the rise of oysters, blue crabs and black sea bass (The Rhode Island fish trappers in the 1900’s complained about black sea bass ripping traps apart then made of manila and cotton twines) but also the fall of coldwater species of lobsters, quahogs and bay scallops. At the end of this period, Tarpon were caught in Narragansett Bay and listed in the native species list. The Narragansett Bay survey started in 1898 as a result of a bay wide die off and schools of fish never seen before.
After a very intense “hot term,” a century later we have seen something similar, in fact precisely, what happened a century ago, a reversal between lobsters and the blue crab in southern New England.
In 1998, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut surveys showed an increase in the presence of small blue crabs, the same year lobsters in southern New England started to decline, we have a historic opportunity to study habitat change here in the Long Island Sound – the southern range of the lobster and the northern range of the blue crab – my view.
A Warm Fall Continues – Pattern Lasts Three Years
The water temperature on October 1, 2017 was 65oF, November 1st 55oF and December 1st 47oF. We are seeing some wind shift overturn of the Sound. Cooler surface water sinks as warmer water is replaced from below. This happens in September after a strong northwesterly wind. The surface of Long Island Sound, usually warm water, is displaced from the coast and cooler bottom water “upwells” close at the shore. Fishers usually see this first as bait is on the beach, cooler water and shallow, but as the southwesterly wind rebuilds, the shore waters become warm again, bait along the beach dissipates. On December 15th, water temperature is fluctuating between 37oF and 42oF but is continuing to lower. A colder pattern is setting in with numerous Hudson Bay lows to the north. The winter looks like a cold one. The late fall brought some good blue crab catches, some reports of 8 to 10 crabs per hour, but the springs with cooler waters catch rates were very slow.
Looking forward to the 2018 blue crab season! Thank you for your reports and comments.
All observations are important as we learn more about lobsters and blue crabs. I respond to all emails at Tim.Visel@new-haven.k12.ct.us
The Fall of Oysters & Blue Crabs New England 1915 - 1968
After 1915 Climate Change Creates Habitat Instability Changes in Habitat Clocks for Oysters and Blue Crabs
By the early 1930’s the oyster industry in New Haven knew that something was wrong – their industry was dying. According to George McNeil in conversations in the middle 1980’s, industry losses from increasing storm intensity occurred before the 1938 Hurricane. Although many industry members blamed bacterial pollution from cities (such as New Haven) or industry (factory wastes) pollution for production declines, the oyster industry was divided. By 1928, the oyster industry asked for federal help and for the creation of the Milford Research Laboratory in Milford, CT. The oyster industry asked the Bureau of Fisheries United States Department of the Interior for assistance as they were running out of seed oysters. The industry had grown quickly in the 1890’s, but after 1920 had steadily declined. The decline of Connecticut inshore oyster sets after 1898 is documented in the historical literature. According to George McNeil, the 1899 oyster set was the heaviest set of the century.
And as oysters sets “failed” blue crabs also fell, mirroring precisely the decline in oysters, together as the NAO turned negative both declined – the oyster industry production – jobs, investment loss was significant but blue crabs impacted only small boat fishers. As temperatures changed habitat clocks were out of sink, and the starfish clock was now aligned with oyster with disastrous results – predation followed heavy starfish sets but imagine if all the shallow water, medium and deep water oysters all spawned at the same time or over several weeks, now rarely set at all after 1909. The offshore natural beds declined and more frequent sets were inshore in warmer winters.
That is what basically sustained the great oyster sets of the 1890’s, George McNeil once commented any clean surfaces, even an old leather boot had seed oysters attached. These great sets are recorded by the Connecticut Shellfish Commission reports in the 1890’s to 1900’s. Connecticut oyster growers no longer entirely depended upon “southern plants” of seed oysters from Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. By 1910, Connecticut would become known as the seed oyster state, supplying oyster seed to other New England growers who could grow them but in areas to the north that did have the oyster setting intensity of Connecticut’s river filled shoreline and were just not warm enough to sustain oyster sets of the 1890’s.
That would change into the 1920’s and 1930’s as year after year what was expected a good set on planted oyster shells in July did not happen. Some years had no sets at all. (From reviewing the historical literature and papers by Victor Loosenoff at the Milford Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, whose laboratory was created to study the lack of sets. The sets that happened in July now shifted to October/November – See “Time and Intensity of Setting of the Oyster Crassostrea virginica In Long Island Sound, 1966). The cool weather had delayed the oyster setting as planted shells at best had a 20 day window to catch a set, oyster spat need a clean surface to which to attach, as fouling organisms (a natural process) such as bacterial films soon coated these shells making them largely unavailable for spatfalls. Although the industry had developed in the 1890’s when sets occurred around the 4th of July, they now occurred much later in early September and October, 60 to 90 days later, but this did not change industry shell planting “cultch” practices. Sets came later on those inshore beds, but George McNeil described these as “lip sets,” sets on growing oyster shell itself or on seed beds raked for seed oysters in the fall. It was thought that raking had raised “black shell” in the fall, exposing a shell in humus was acidic and therefore “clean” for any spat still viable in the water column. These “fall sets” are recorded in the Tauton River once a great source of seed oysters. In 1887 US Fish Commission Report of the Massachusetts Fall River District (pg. 279) talks about large areas of oyster culture in the Tauton River (that once was rumored to be capable of producing as many seed oysters as the entire Coast of Connecticut).
In Southern New England colder spring temperatures would delay oyster sets sometimes until the fall, one as late as November. (See Loosanoff studies in the 1950s). In culture operations stirring or scratching up shell exposed shell surfaces that were buried in acidic muck and formed the shell base. These shells as Clyde Mackenzie demonstrated in a 1970 Bureau of Commercial Fisheries bulletin were acid washed and therefore “clean” and suitable for spatfalls. Oyster growers therefore by accident could expose such long buried shells for spatfalls and this Tauton River example describes such an event in the 1880s (pg. 279).
“The ground is cleaned up pretty thoroughly by the time the 1st of June is reached, and in the fall little raking is done, it being considered poor policy. A well known lessee on the Freetown shore, however, thinking, at the expiration of his lease a few years ago, that he would be unable to renew it, resolved selfishly to dredge his whole land in the autumn, leaving as barren a ground as possible for this successor – a proceeding quite characteristics of the locality. He did so, but succeeded in renewing his lease, and returned to his raking the ensuing spring rather ruefully, expecting to find little or nothing. To his astonishment, he picked off an area that had usually yielded him 6,000 to 7,000 bushels no less than 12,000. Therefore he concluded that the thorough scraping had done the bottom good, though where he got the spawn at the late day is a mystery.” This is the black shell that Clyde Mackenzie would describe in 1970 as a last ditch effort to save the remnants of a once huge oyster industry. In January 1970, Commercial Fisheries Review titled Oyster Culture in Long Island Sound 1966-69 on page 30 has this statement: “In 1968, Mackenzie observed that black shells obtained from muddy bottoms could be planted immediately, and being free of fouling organisms, would catch about as many spat as clean dock-stored shells.”
We have excellent records for the oyster industry with important temperature observations that can assist in this effort. The change in temperature and energy levels was not instantaneous – rather slowly as climate conditions changed and impacts to shellfish species were reflected years later. After many years of no oyster sets, by 1941 New England oyster farmers were already starting to look very carefully at water temperatures. Gordon Sweet of New Haven, Connecticut who wrote extensively about the need to conserve oyster sets was beginning to have second thoughts. In his October 1941 paper titled “Oyster Conservation in Connecticut” Mr. Sweet introduced a new concept for explaining the dramatic oyster harvest declines as now climatic factors. On page 591 (Geographical Review Vol. 31, #3, Oct. 1941) is found this footnote which mentions about “habitat” and “a new balance.” We know this to be the habitat compression of habitat failure caused by climate. Mr. Sweet states in 1941:
“The colder the waters, the less prolific the oysters and the more difficult their survival. The progressive contraction south of the northern limit of habitat was apparently due to human exploitation plus marginal environment. Another hypothesis would be our coastal waters are colder than they were 300 years ago but the writer has no data to support this suggestion. Recent investigations under taken by the State of Maine indicate that the rehabilitation (restoration) of their oyster beds is not feasible owing principally to low water temperatures which practically inhibit the spawning of Ostrea (crassostrea) virginica. This contraction has proceeded south to Long Island Sound were a new balance has been established.”
Mr. Sweet was correct as the “hot term” expanded north into the Maritimes - oyster reproduction increased as noted in Maine oyster sets.
It was going to get worse: “the new normal” (a new balance, a term used often today), was to continue to constrict oyster habitat quality back to the warmer coves and rivers. As the cold intensified, Victor Loosanoff would in the 1960s record multiple years of set failures between 1940 and 1965 – sets often did occur but in October and November and did not survive the winter as they came too late (George McNeil, personal communications 1980’s).
Dr. Loosanoff’s 1966 paper “Time and Intensity of Setting of the Oyster, Crassostrea virginica In Long Island Sound (Biological Bulletin, Vol. 130 #2, pp. 211-227, April 1966 US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory Milford, CT (now NOAA NMFS) mentioned that in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, cooler waters had pushed 10 year set dates, from July (considered the industry “normal”) into much later August and even September. In the late 1960’s, sets of October (1956) were recorded, which arrived too late to survive. Oyster sets occurred, it was just that they occurred late because of cold springs and cooler spring waters. In his summary, he concluded “the 25 year period 1937-61 has shown that the larvae of advanced stages were never extremely common.” This was in stark contrast to the 1880 to 1920 period during which oyster sets came “early” and were often intense (See Appendix).
And as oysters fell from record highs in New England, so did the blue crabs, and observations from Maine (also from the Bureau of Commerce/Fisheries Researchers) now noted the winter kills of crabs, even the hardy green crab that lives in the North Sea.
The brutal winters of the mid-1950’s is thought to have eliminated all of the habitat expansion of the green crab of the middle of the last century. In changes in abundance of the green crab, Carcinus maenas, in relation to recent temperature changes, Walter R. Welch, Fishery Biologist with Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory in West Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, reports that cold and thick ice was devastating to green crabs, even in southern New England:
“Two locations in Rhode Island showed a more gradual but consistent decline of crabs over several years. At Narrow River in Narragansett Pier, maximum monthly means dropped steadily from 127 crabs per trap per day in 1956 to 51 in 1959. At Potter Pond Outlet in Jerusalem, the means dropped from 334 in 1955 to 88 in 1959.” (pg. 341)
The winters in the 1950’s were brutal and green crabs were killed by the cold and noted:
“During the winter of 1958-1959, BCF biologists observed another winter kill in south western Maine. Monthly mean water temperatures from January through March 1959 were the lowest for all three months since 1948. Monthly mean air temperatures for December and February were the lowest for those months since 1917 and 1934. In the tidal marshes in Wells, Maine where many crabs overwinter intertidally in burrows in banks of Spartina sod, we found hundreds of dead crabs of both sexes and sizes.” (They also noticed that following a die off of green crabs, soft shell clam production now improved).
The cold signaled a massive change in the weather pattern in the 1950’s, a shift in the circumpolar jet influenced by a semi-permanent, low pressure system termed the Icelantic low. Combined they would now allow an increase in energy along the Atlantic seaboard, heavy rains from tropical systems – floods from hurricanes. This shift, according to John Hammond, a retired oyster farmer who lived in Chatham, MA, had opened the door to more and stronger hurricanes long absent in the intensity and frequency; the eastern seaboard was now “open.” And with this shift, energy and temperature would both change the habitats of New England. The result of these tropical systems would now bring heavy rains and floods, and in Connecticut, including the devastating flood of 1955 during the negative NAO.
The flood of 1955, which occurred on August 19, 1955, is attributed to Hurricane Diane but the foundation of the floodwaters devastation should be shared with the Hurricane Connie that happened only 5 days before Hurricane Diane. These tropical rains saturated soils and left Connecticut residents to then the largest flood in Connecticut’s modern history. This excerpt written by Pat Hewitt and published by John F. Caputi and photographs by Rubens (40 Main Street) of Torrington, CT, one of the hardest hit areas In Connecticut.
“On August 19, 1955, disaster hit Connecticut. Twenty-four hours of heavy rain changed lazy rivers into swollen, angry torrents leaving a wake of unprecedented destruction and tragedy.
Torrington’s entire business section was flooded and many of its vital industrial plants temporarily put out of operation, resulting in millions of dollars worth of damage.
The Mad River raged down Winsted’s Main Street, carrying with it homes, stores, and automobiles and crippling eighty percent of the city’s industry.
Governor Ribicoff visited Bristol and other areas, viewing the extensive damage to homes, businesses and property.
The spirit of the citizens of Connecticut was amazing. Businessmen cleaned the mud and debris out of their stores and notified their customers, “We were washed out, but we haven’t given up!”
One hundred years from now, people will never believe that this happened. Only a photographic record such as this will serve to remind future generations of the unbelievable tragedy of the 1955 flood ……”
The experiences of Connecticut’s coast and inland areas in the 1950’s would lead Senator Prescott Bush and Connecticut Governor Abraham Ribicoff to sponsor and support the federal Flood and Erosion Control Act of 1955. In fact, a statement from “Torrington’s Nightmare … Never Again” sets the stake for this federal legislation:
“What is to be done in the way of re-designing, laying out things and controlling rivers and streams, we do not know. But, we feel sure, that with the Federal Government in full sympathy with our plight, and with our on Governor, Abraham Ribicoff and our City Officials spearheading the program, Torrington will rise more beautiful than ever … and better equipped to meet angry flood waters.”
One of the lasting Senator Bush’s legislative achievements was the flood and hurricane protection for New England communities. In fact, he wrote Public Law 71, also known as the Bush Hurricane Survey Act. Within a few years, Public Law 86-045, July 14, 1960, would have tens of millions for Connecticut communities devastated by the floods of 1955 as the result of Senator Bush’s support of Flood and Erosion Control Acts.
Key to Connecticut’s flood and erosion control efforts directed by the Army Corps of Engineers would be concentrated on beach erosion. As a result, many shoreline communities soon had local flood and erosion control boards.
Blue Crab Models Often “Noisy” for Energy and Brittle to Temperature
When it comes to blue crab predictions, population changes or abundance, many population models (there seems to be almost an obsession with the formation of models perhaps indicative of a need to master nature – my view) do not take into consideration the temperature impact to bacterial populations or habitat succession of energy systems, the biochemical reduction of Sapropel, carrying habitat capacity (or cannibalism) and many predator-prey relationships. Many models focus upon catches or reproductive capacity as a primary data input, but climate and temperature aspects create “noise” in these models (a term to describe model inconsistencies). When it comes to blue crabs, the noise to some models becomes a 20-piece steel drum band (my view). That is why long-term trends create the best scenario and short-term views often misleading for the blue crab. Their populations are “brittle” in terms of short-term projections.
The same “noise” surrounds attempts to explain the recent fall of lobsters in southern New England. While Maine’s lobster production continues at century record levels, in a warming scenario, the chief lobster predator, codfish, moved north into cooler waters. Another temperature sensitive fishery is halibut. One of the ways you can see changes in fish populations over time is by simply looking at cookbooks. The Fannie FarmerTM 1936 Cookbook, for example, has eleven recipes for halibut; today, you might see one, two or none.
As seawaters, especially shallow coves and bays, warmed in the 1890’s (and why all those shore summer coastal settlements, cabins and cottages increased), codfish and halibut became abundant in northern waters, our fishing fleets had to travel farther and farther to reach them. Some ports just were abandoned as the trip distances increased to capture halibut in the Davis Straits (See IMEP #54 posted August 10, 2015 titled “Climate Change – Case History for Connecticut – Halibut Fleet 1848-1881” on the Blue Crab ForumTM Fishing, Eeling, Oystering) about the once large halibut fleet out of Niantic, CT.
Halibut returned during the 1950’s and codfish became abundant again. The cold fisheries now soared. The 1965 Haddock catch was 52 thousand metric tons. By 1982, it was 25% or 12.5 thousand metric tons while codfish soared in the early 1970’s, a chief predator of small lobsters living on sandy cobblestone and kelp habitats. This apex predator is devastating to lobster populations as early lobster researchers frequently noted that codfish gorged themselves on small lobsters (Herrick, Enemies of the Lobster, 1905).
The cold and energy was returning to New England and the Gales of the 1920’s ushered in a new reality that Hurd Willet at MIT was studying in the 1960’s that the Polar Vortex could deliver bitter cold and energize coastal low pressure systems and could influence species “habitat clocks.” Constant Northwest winds collapsed by sheer force the western wall of the Gulf Stream and allowed a cold counter current to strengthen along the Flemish Cap along the Scotian shelf and then into the Gulf of Maine. And, with the cold water came the codfish. This cold current would deliver a contain stream of codfish larvae setting up the habitat expansion of the codfish in the Gulf of Maine, written about in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Bulletin #74, Vol. 53 by Henry Bigelow and Schroeder titled “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine.”
Because of lobster conservation efforts, lobster continued to reproduce and megalops sets out of codfish habitats matured into the offshore fishery. Lobster habitat capacity stabilized by the offshore lobster “sets” by tremendous predation of the codfish and others and Maine lobster catches also stabilized for forty years showing consistent catch levels. The inshore habitats had heavy predation and catches in shallow waters declined as they became more of a nursery lobster habitat than a production habitat, which moved offshore as larger lobsters need larger habitats to remain hidden in bright daylight. Any population dynamic models would need to incorporate habitat quality and habitat capacity – lobsters having a long life span while blue crabs just the opposite – shorter and able to take advantage in a quick change of habitat clocks. Blue crabs therefore can have shorter ups and downs in abundance as lobsters that can live to 100 years and reflect over time decades of habitat improvement or decline.
Herrick’s 1905 book “The Natural History of the American Lobster” reports on page 120 the following:
“A fisherman at Beal Island West Jonesport, ME stated that he had caught cod on trawls 10 to 15 miles from shore with lobsters 4 to 6 inches long in their stomachs. Cod were also caught around Manan in summer in 20 fathoms of water by Mr. J.W. Fisher of Eastport, with very small lobsters 1 to 2 inches long in their stomachs. Lobsters an inch long have also been taken from the stomachs of codfish on the shores of Prince Edward Island (p. 209, 232) and soft lobsters 3 to 8 inches long have also been found in the stomach of these fish taken in deep water offshore.”
“The observations of Mr. Vinal N. Edwards are quoted by Mr. Rathbun to show the greatest destruction of lobsters in the Edgartown district, Martha’s Vineyard, out of the hundreds of cod caught about No Man’s Land and examined by Mr. Edwards nearly every fish “contained one or more young lobsters, and in many cases, the stomachs were almost entirely filled with them.” So great did the destruction wrought upon the lobster by the cod impress one fisherman that he thought the cod a greater enemy than the lobsterman and said I have caught one hundred cod in one day that I knew the amount of one thousand lobsters and shed claws in their entrails.”
The same predation impact occurred with our blue crabs recently although it was by black sea bass. It was the Guilford CT black sea bass fishers who contacted me with information about black sea bass beginning in 2012. Large numbers of black sea bass were feeding heavily on small blue crabs in deeper waters. What started as a few reports increased in 2013 and 2014 into a stream. Black sea bass were consuming large numbers of blue crabs, 1 inch to 2 inches in width in depths out to 90 feet of water (personal communications, Alison Varian to Tim Visel, 2012-2013). Reports of black sea bass continued into 2014 with gut cavity contents filled with nickel-size blue crabs in 70 feet of water (See Megalops Program Report #4, October 7, 2014). In 2015, these reports lessened as it was thought that very few of these small blue crabs survived.
A recruitment failure, disease mortality and continued fishing while waters warmed have reduced Gulf of Maine cod to mere fractions of previous catches. But what if this lobster predator makes a comeback? It will find an incredible supply of food much to the loathing of lobster fishers.
A key measure is the strength of the megalops sets, changing winds and temperatures influence these inshore sets, a change in the prevailing winds or habitat cover (newly set crabs prefer eelgrass, lobsters prefer deeper, cooler kelp) can alter megalop sets for both lobsters and blue crabs. Intermediate habitats include oyster beds for blue crabs and rock rubble for lobsters. Blue crabs and oyster beds have a close habitat relationship. Blue crabs feed on small oysters and benefit from a large prey foundation found in oyster beds. Lobsters in cooler weather also live in oyster beds. When oyster beds thrive, so it seems does the blue crab. If you look at the increase of oyster sets between 1880 and 1920, as oyster recruitment increased in these warming waters so did the blue crab. As temperatures fell, oyster beds and bivalve shell litter also helped the winter flounder as a post-nursery habitat. When that happened, the blue crab also disappeared, so did the oyster industry with production declining 98% by 1972.
One link to the rise and fall of blue crabs in our area may be the rise and fall of eelgrass and then the dieoff of eelgrass in high heat, possibly indicating a massive shift in a climate pattern. The cycle of eelgrass also appears to follow similar cyclic weather patterns.
When one thinks of the softshell crab industry, the peeler tank systems of Chesapeake Bay come to mind. That is why the following is so important to more fully understand the increase in the blue crab in Rhode Island waters after 1900. This article helps to document the blue crab fishery and its development of softshell crab shedding operations.
A Rhode Island Blue Crab History – 1904
Blue Crabs Surge in Narragansett Bay After 1898
Thirty-Fourth Annual Report
Made to the General Assembly January Session
Report of Commissioners of Inland Fisheries, Pg. 69
Providence, RI E.L. Freeman & Sons State Printers 1904 VIII Preliminary Inquiry into the Natural History of the Paddler Crab (Callinectes hastatus) With Remarks on the Soft Shell Crab Industry in Rhode Island (1904) by E.W. Barnes
Tim Visel Comments in ( )
The Natural History of the Paddler Blue Crab in Rhode Island
“Among the minor fishing industries in Rhode Island, the impounding of edible crabs until they have shed their shells and supply the market (which in Rhode Island as other coastal states were also noticing a growing “summer trade” of shore visitors – T. Visel) with soft shell crabs is of no or little interest, and judging from the enviable place which this delicious shellfish holds in the estimation of epicures from the demand for it in the market and from the prices it brings, it would seem as though the industry might be developed into one of considerable commercial importance.” A preliminary inquiry into the subject was made during the past summer by Mr. E.W. Barnes (whose report is here “given” to the Rhode Island legislature – T. Visel).
The paddler crab (Callinectes hastatus) (now known as Callinectes sapidus or the blue crab – scientific names did change over time – T. Visel) frequents sandy and muddy shores in sheltered coves and in the mouths of brackish streams from Massachusetts Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. It is known by many local names, the most common in Narrangansett Bay being the “edible crab,” the “blue crab,” the “paddler crab,” or simply “paddler.” Among crustaceans of economic importance, it ranks perhaps next to the lobster. It is used as food, as bait, and even as fertilizer.
Those who have had large experience with them say that the crabs migrate into deeper water and are often caught there. The reasons for these migrations and exact information concerning them have not of yet been obtained. In the winter, the crabs are pretty generally absent from the shores, but sometimes they are found buried in the sandy mud, begin to return toward the latter part of May or the first of June and remain sometimes as late as November (It is suspected that this section describes what Connecticut blue crabbers have observed a “wave of crabs heading out to deeper ocean waters” – T. Visel).
The soft shell crab industry, in some parts of the bay, especially at Narrow River, there are several fishermen who make a regular business of supplying the market with this species of soft shell crabs. The product returns several thousand dollars each year. It would be difficult or impossible to supply the demand by merely catching the crabs in the soft-shell condition.
The industry depends upon ingenious methods of distinguishing the crabs, which are about to shed their old shells, of impounding and feeding them until they have shed and are in proper condition, and of retaining them in the soft-shelled condition, and packing them for soft shipment.
The crabs are caught by means of long-handled nets, and a special lookout is kept for those which are moving in pairs, because as we have already stated, in such cases one of the pair is likely to be a female about to shed or which has just finished shedding. There are also special factors, some of which we have mentioned which distinguish the crabs that are about to shed. Thus a crab is suspected of being a shedder if its movements are sluggish and it does not move quickly, has lost a limb, has a new one partly generated, or has a hard dull-looking shell.
Crabs, which are judged to be about to shed, are placed in a floating car where they are kept in separate compartments until the shell breaks open. Then they are transferred to another car where they are kept all together, and from which they are picked out as soon as possible after they have finished molting, and finally are packed and shipped.
Having obtained the crabs in the required soft shell condition, it is of equal importance to keep them alive (although no ice is mentioned for product cooling – this can be considered as assumed or so common as to not deserve a mention. This period is in the middle of the great heat from 1880 to 1920 during which the heat was to generate the invention of mechanical refrigeration and a decline in the block ice business – T. Visel) in this condition until they pass into the hands of the chef. Under natural conditions, the shell will harden in a few days. To obviate this, an ingenious method is employed. At the proper time soon after they have shed, the crabs are packed in damp seaweed or eelgrass where they will remain alive for a long time (if kept cool and moist – See above comment T. Visel) but the shell will not harden (To do this, crabs, like lobsters, need calcium ions in seawater – T. Visel).
If, however, seawater be added to the seaweed so that it becomes wet instead of merely damp, the shell commences to harden, and what is known as the “paper shell” crab is produced.
The crabbing season extends form the first of June until the end of September, but the crabs are sometimes caught as early as the last of May and as late as the beginning of November. The better summer resorts furnish an excellent market at high prices. Newport, Saunderstown, and Jamestown pay about $1.00/dozen. The regular price in the Providence market ranges from approximately 50 cents to 75 cents.”
Will Lobsters Return to Connecticut?
The presence or absence of lobsters to blue crabs in Native American shell middens here could tell us much about previous climate periods, but other species could also provide key indicators, hard shell clams to oysters or bay scallops. The Viking settlements of Greenland during the Medieval warm period (950 to 1250) are thought to begin around 985 and ended in 1305 as the Little Ice Age then overtook Europe. Examination of those middens (actually a Viking Dutch word kjoekken moedding for kitchen refuse) perhaps could indicate a failing agriculture diet and perhaps a switch to seafood in the middens. A shift in diet, food availability is likely the best indicator we have as growing seasons perhaps collapsed until frosts destroyed crops before harvests (Records will indicate this Norse Colony survived until 1408).
Our Native Americans have also provided us with clues to climate changes of gradually turning to agriculture as habitats stabilized, relying on seafood during the warmer months and storing some vegetables for winter. We do have evidence of salting, smoking and drying seafood and those processes speak to reduced food supplies in the winter months. A potential diet (midden) in Viking Greenland settlements could show perhaps a similar “habitat compression” of agriculture growing seasons for crops. [Diets represent a good proxy for food availability (abundance) and utility – drying, smoking and preserving seafood, especially with salt brine and later in salt crystals “rock salt.”] As the growing seasons “collapsed” (compressed), only the warmest areas could still produce food and these settlements would tend to grow, while those in areas of less capacity (cold shorter growing seasons), those settlements over time would “fail.” Habitat compression happens to us as well, but we call them famines.
Other species exhibit habitat refugia when habitat compression occurs. Striped bass is the example I use in some presentations. Striped bass also seek out habitat refugia in New England. Stripers hang off warm water outfalls and were often dense near them (good fishing), but sharp cold snaps caused “overturns,” cold sulfide waters rising as even colder surface ice force water sinks, forcing sulfide to the surface. This, I believe, was the reason for the Black Hall River striped bass kill of January 2014. Interviews with Black Hall residents indicated that at least two much smaller fish kills associated with the smell of sulfur (See Special Notice #1 Blue Crab Winter Kill posted on January 15, 2014 on the Blue Crab ForumTM). These fish kill events especially indicate habitat compression into a habitat failure. Striped bass grow to larger sizes after long periods of heat, but after 2011 colder winters have returned to New England.
Our waters have cooled and stripers that have enjoyed these open and relatively mild winters have moved on; so have their forage species, the silversides, the saltwater minnow Menidia menidia. Several striped bass fishers have contacted me about the apparent decline in silversides in the Long Island Sound. Coastal residents knew that stripers would overwinter off outfalls and in deep holes, one of which was the East River railroad bridge where tidal scour created a deep hole. Charles Beebe, late of Madison, took me one February where with handlines and cut mackerel and large stripers were caught (1971-1972). He described that the deep hole was warmer and stripers would sometimes stay all winter, a refuge from colder waters perhaps feeding on dense populations of silversides (See Megalops Report #6 on the Blue Crab ForumTM, November 6, 2015).
Oysters also retreated to warmer areas in periods of cold (1920 to 1972). During this period, oyster sets declined offshore and the only areas that still would get an oyster set were the salt ponds, shallow coves and the mouths of rivers. These areas are those that warm in early spring. In times of heat, oyster habitat expands and, in cold, it contracts.
We see this impact in ranges, broad geographic areas, which in the fisheries literature refer to those species as “native.” In times of heat, southern species move north as they did in the previous warm period 1880–1920. Striped bass, oysters and blue crabs extended their range far north. The Cuttyhunk Fishing Club actually started in New York, then moved to Rhode Island, and finally to the Cuttyhunk last outpost of the Elizabeth Islands of Cape Cod as larger and larger stripers moved north from Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island.
When colder temperatures came in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the frequency of overwintering striped bass populations declined and major forage species changed as well. This occurred with the striped bass year class of 1934 born in a rapid downturn in warm weather prey species while cold weather prey species had not a chance to fill this habitat void and this year class eventually “vanished” as if it never existed. I believe that this abundant year class was born in a “forage famine;” there just was not enough food to sustain them as striper fishers anticipated this great year of stripers to sustain a future fishery for decades - that never happened.
Blue Crab Habitat Compression
The habitat compression and then failure can be seen in the decline of winter flounder populations as in shallow inshore habitats warmed into the 1980’s and 1990’s. These habitats now contained a growing organic compost, which heated, turned against these species, including winter flounder. These habitats now turned deadly, flesh rot and shell disease now occurred and represented a changing bacterial spectrum, the Vibrios. But this habitat impact has been known for almost a century and one of the first researchers was Claude E. Zobell of Scipps Institute of Oceanography, University of California and his studies at the university in the 1930’s, noting in Recent Marine Sediments (Trask, 1955) that chitinoclastic bacteria are widely distributed (lobster shell disease Vibrios) and according to Waksman (1948), bacteria slowly decompose even resistant marine humus; and in doing so, they liberate carbon dioxide and ammonia. Waksman further identified the major diseases of bacterial habitat change, which we know today as antibiotics.
The ability of seawater to hold heat much longer than land gives the blue crab a thermal advantage. It can survive longer by retreating to habitat refugia – refuges from the cold shallow water. This was quite evident in Rhode Island some 50 years ago (Jeffries, 1966) when blue crabs had retreated to the shallow southern Rhode Island salt ponds. These areas have longer habitat clocks; they warm up faster and give those remaining crabs a chance to survive beyond reproductive capacity. Blue crabbing may still be good in these habitat-compressed areas. In fact, it is often great. These crabs however are part of a declining fishery. Without successful megalops sets, the future of the fishery depends not only on reproductive capacity but also temperature. As a species undergoes habitat compression, adults (more hardy and mobile) crowd together in habitat refuges so catch per unit effort in them actually goes up (This happened with the southern New England and particularly Long Island Sound lobster fishery in the 1990’s). The population is compressed into small habitats, but intraspecies competition now works against population expansion. So many adults are seeking any available food and space, and any small crabs may become their food as well. The same impact occurs with lobster “grounds keepers.” Since adults are caught as part of a fishery, adult catches can remain steady or even increase and then collapse as no smaller crabs have survived to replace those being caught. When that happens, the term “overfishing” is often mentioned, but the real cause is a habitat induced recruitment failure and has been mentioned for lobsters in a warming climate cycle and predicted by Donald Rhoads of Yale University in 1985.
Have Blue Crabs Stopped Molting?
That question is back and one I raised a few years ago, “How old do blue crabs get?” I think that cooler water slows molts and we need to rethink how blue crabs respond to cooler temperatures and how long they can live. While crabbing this past decade, at times I have seen a large blue crab body with smaller, more tapered-looking claws. This crab usually had a rock hard shell, growths and numerous wounds. I believe that faced with cooler temperatures, these crabs have stopped or slowed shedding. Their shells were heavily fouled with growths and stains. They were not new shells, in fact they appeared to be several years old. I think we start to begin thinking about 8 to 12 years for blue crab life span in our area.
We need to look at long-term population changes in Long Island Sound fish surveys. Because of its shorter lifespan than lobsters (It is believed that lobsters can live up to 100 years), blue crab survey information is very important to our learning about blue crab populations and its potential role as a proxy signal for climate changes here in Long Island Sound.
Long Island Sound fish survey data of the basin and inshore seine surveys provide critical information on the recent surges of blue crabs in our waters and the possible “return” of our lobsters – my view, T. Visel.
Thank you for all your blue crab reports and observations. Looking forward to the 2018 blue crab season!
A History Oyster Setting in Connecticut
Information from John H. Volk 1982
Compiled by Timothy C. Visel
EPA/HRI Meeting November 14, 2007
Mr. Timothy C. Visel
Cape Cod Extension Service
Office of Deeds and Probate
Barnstable, Massachusetts 02630
I’ve enclosed some data on oyster setting in Connecticut for the years 1882 through 1961. This information is taken from the Annual Shellfish Commissioners’ Report.
Since 1961, the Reports of the Shellfish Commission and that of the subsequent Division have been included in the Annual Connecticut Administrative Reports to the Governor.
Using information from the Administrative Reports and my personal knowledge of oyster sets in recent years, I have compiled the statistics for 1962 to the present as listed below.
Please let me know if we can be of further assistance.
John H. Volk
(Updated 2018 for period from 1983 to present – Tim Visel, observations)
Year Set-Description Number of Natural Bed Boats
1882 Ok-Probably -
1883 Ok-Probably -
1884 Ok-Probably 300
1885 Ok-Probably -
1886 Ok-Probably -
1887 Abundant -
1888 Light -
1889 Light -
1890 Great Set -
1891 Fine -
1892 Fine -
1893 Fair -
1894 Fine 256
1895 Fine 247
1896 Good 302
1897 Uneven 196
1898 Failure 122
1899 Fine 276
1900 Only Fair 324
1901 Light 217
1902 Poor 81
1903 Very Poor 24
1904 Splendid 258
1905 Scattering 267
1906 Very Poor 193
1907 Very Poor 157
1908 Scattering 177
1909 Poor 131
1910 Poor 138
1911 New Haven Only 154
1912 No Set 136
1913 Failure 98
1914 Light 117
1915 No Set 68
1916 No Set 43
1917 No Set 28
1918 No Set 21
1919 Bridgeport Bed Only 161
1920 No Set 126
1921 No Set 73
1922 Set from Spawning Beds 41
1923 A Little 57
1924 No Set 31
1925 Fairly Good Set 40
1926 Fairly Local Sets 40
1927 No Set 21
1928 Good Inshore Set 9
1929 Scattering 20
1930 Fine 34
1931 No Set 32
1932 No Set 9
1933 No Set 17
1934 Good 11
1935 Very Light 14
1936 No Set 34
1937 Light Set 47
1938 Very Poor 28
1939 Fair Set (Mostly destroyed by pests) 12
1940 Fair Set 37
1941 Very Light Set 24
1942 Very Poor Set 29
1943 Light Set 22
1944 Fair to Good 11
1945 Fair 20
1946 Fair – Spotty 31
1947 Very Light 27
1948 Very Poor 27
1949 Poor 20
1950 Poor 29
1951 Very Poor 10
1952 Very Poor 9
1953 Very Poor 3
1954 No Set 4
1955 Very Poor 3
1956 Poor 7
1957 Fair 4
1958 Very Light 0
1959 Poor 1
1960 Poor 12
1961 Poor 5
1962 Poor -
1963 Poor -
1965 Poor -
1966 Fair to Good -
1967 Light -
1968 Good (“S” License Holders # Issued)
1969 Fair to Good 21
1970 Fair to Good 18
1971 Fair to Good ?
1972 Fair to Good ?
1973 Fair to Good ?
1974 Fair to Good ?
1975 Fair to Good 31
1976 Fair to Good ?
1977 Fair to Good ?
1978 Very Abundant 62
1979 Good ?
1980 Good ?
1981 Abundant ?
1982 Very Light ?
1983 Good ? (Tim Visel records & observations)
1984 Good ?
1985 Good ?
1986 Light Inshore Bridgeport Heavy State Shell Plant Program
1987 Light Inshore Bridgeport Heavy State Shell Plant Program
1988 Good State Shell Plant Program
1989 Good State Shell Plant Program
1990 Abundant State Shell Plant Program
1991 Good State Shell Plant Program
1992 Abundant ?
1993 Good ?
1994 Bridgeport Heavy 200 Seed licenses issued (1994)
1995 Bridgeport Heavy ?
1996 Norwalk Heavy ?
1997 Good ?
1998 Abundant ?
1999 Light ?
2000 Good Inshore ?
2001 Bridgeport/New Haven ?
2002 Light ?
2003 Good Inshore ?
2004 Light ?
2005 Light ?
2006 Light ?
2007 Good ?
2008 Poor Heavy Fouling ?
2009 Housatonic Only ?
2010 Abundant Statewide ?
2011 Light – Winter Damage ?
2012 Good – Housatonic Good ?
2013 Light – Winter Damage ?
2014 New Haven Only – Late ?
2015 Light – Housatonic Good ?
2016 Good Inshore July ?
2017 Light Inshore Late ?
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