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BlueChip
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« on: April 17, 2013, 12:50:57 PM »

The Sound School – the ISSP and Capstone Project Proposal
Building a Network of Citizen Monitors
The Search for Megalops
The Connecticut Blue Crab Population Habitat Study 2010-2015
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!



The Search for Megalops – Program Report #1 -2013 – Blue Crab Year
April 17, 2013

•  The 2013 blue crab season and climate change. 2013 a key year;
•  The discussions surrounding habitat quality and capacity for blue crabs;
•  Could the 2013 blue crab year answer climate change habitat questions – Hurricanes and Blizzards?
•  All about Sapropel and habitat questions from western Connecticut crabbers;
•  Year class size reports are key to understanding Megalops survival – watch for year class divisions.

The Significance of the 2013 Blue Crab Season

As the 2013 blue crab season begins, it may be one of the most significant in 50 years. Last fall, Connecticut had an immense Megalops set, but that was quickly followed by a powerful hurricane, then numerous gales, two blizzards and a very cold winter.

Western crabbers had a poorer blue crab season (2012) with much lower crab populations, now linked to hydrogen sulfide questions, summer heat/ low oxygen and chemical concerns following a July 2011die off.  Eastern Connecticut crabbers (2012) had a good late season, believed to be populations that overwintered in the Mystic, Thames and Pawcatuck Rivers, but it was late September to October, and cut short by the powerful October Hurricane, Sandy.  Central Connecticut had overall the best crabbing 2012 and the blue crab population in the Connecticut River was again in the millions.

Conditions however could be very different in 2013 – testing some habitat indicators believed to be helping the blue crab and restricting lobsters- energy and temperature levels.

Energy levels have certainly increased since 2004 and temperatures also showing larger year to year changes – cold then hot, etc. The winters of 2010 and 2012 were some of the coldest in recent times.

As one climate period ends and another begins, it is often that such wide swings in temperature and energy levels occur.  After the long heat of 1880-1920 it was quickly followed by a hot and dry period out west; the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and 1940s. The 1950s and 1960s were colder and storm filled here in New England and recalled for numerous hurricanes which followed the New England Hurricane of 1938 and then increasingly colder winters- The North Atlantic Oscillation (coldest winter 1957).

The 2013 blue crab year will follow an unprecedented increase in energy levels (storms) and one of the coldest winters in recent memory. A habitat transition may already be in place, reports last summer included large numbers of small winter flounder in eastern CT, and Niantic Bay had a modest bay scallop season last fall.  Both species have benefited historically from lower temperatures and increased energy levels.  Many Connecticut beaches were striped of sand exposing buried cobblestones of long ago, habitat changes were sudden and in many cases severe signaling the possibilities of a significant habitat “reversal.”  The kelp cobblestone habitat has been found to be very important to juvenile lobster stages.
The 2013 blue crab year could be one of the most important observation seasons to date.  All blue crab observations are important, perhaps more so in just a few weeks. Thank you for sending your reports to me at [email protected] – See you at the docks! Tim

The Topic of Habitat Quality and Capacity

I spoke with dozens of blue crabbers in central and eastern Connecticut last summer; many of them were just introduced to the fishery here in Connecticut.  Essex has become a popular place to crab and the late summer fishery, the last several years (except 2011) has been very strong. In fact, many visitors are shocked / surprised to see those blue plastic circular laundry tubs filled to the brim with blue crabs.  Many of the comments are from southern visitors who lived in the Chesapeake Bay area, surprised to see something “Southern” here in New England.  Last year was the same, and during blue crab banding demonstrations I spoke with some visitors who came north for lobsters but found blue crabbers instead. I suggested they continue north as Maine was having an excellent lobster year while ours (lobster population) now were at very low levels.  It’s a question of habitat quality and capacity, I responded as the habitat quality for lobsters here declined from much higher water temperatures; the habitat capacity for the blue crab improved. I didn’t need to press the point as about a dozen crabbers were fully engaged in landing blue crab after blue crab during the discussion. Last summer, you need not understand the change in blue crab habitat quality; you could see the results of it here at Essex.  Overfishing is frequently mentioned as a concern by visitors and often the exchanges that followed were more even puzzling. The blue crabs in the Connecticut River last fall found favorable habitat after the saline tidal wedge builds in late June and the runoff from spring rains subside.  The crabs that arrive then can’t withstand the fresh water flows in the spring. Those who do find deep salt water pockets (mostly dredged channels) have a chance to survive, but most crabs leaving the Connecticut River in the fall will perish - sad but true.
I was much more concerned, I explained, with a habitat failure then upon the sizes (legal size, etc) the real habitat issue is for the young.  A huge increase in adults and few stages between them is a habitat quality question, not so much overfishing. In Connecticut we have good resource regulatory provisions, such as returning egg bearing blue crabs and minimize sizes. These are good rules but do nothing to ensure habitat quality, those issues which impact habitat quality are not governed by us but by the natural world. What makes it more difficult to understand is that before a fishery collapses, the habitat capacity to sustain it collapses first.  It is a cruel irony that this situation often favors the surviving adults (they are more mobile and do not need to compete for space and food) so catch rates of adults actually increases providing a sense of security when actually none really exists.  The winter flounder collapse of the 1980s followed this pattern1.  The huge increase in lobster production here in the early 1990s was the beginning of a region wide lobster habitat failure, and when it collapsed, the significance of juvenile mortality came into full regulatory view as landings plummeted. The fishery was not overfished, it had good management regulations the lobsters suffered from a habitat failure in Southern New England as they had a century before. It was now very warm again and with few storms habitats had changed, what was damaging to lobsters, high heat and soft bottoms would cause the largest increase in blue crabs here, also, since the last century. Lobsters and blue crabs had “reversed” abundance in Connecticut. A similar fate may now await our Connecticut blue crabs.

Could the 2013 blue crab year answer climate change habitat questions?
At the turn of the century winter flounder fishers and bay scallopers found disappointment in many Connecticut coves and bays. Following the cold and storm filled 1870s the 1880s and 1890s were much warmer and then very hot. The 1896 and 1898 heat waves in New England were record breakers for their time. Bays and coves turned black and began to smell of sulfur, the rotten egg smells so common along the shores. Besides the Blizzard of 1888, the Portland

Gale of 1898 (most likely a November hurricane) and two gales of 1903 and 1905, the 1880 to 1920 period was relatively quiet, storm free.  But with this period came heat

1 (See Where Have the Winter Flounder Gone?  (Visel, 2010).  Fishers might recall catching bluefish packed with small winter flounder driven from nursery habitats in the 1980s.  Winter flounder had to flee these nursery areas and face new predator/prey relationships.

waves that killed hundreds of people.  National Public Radio NPR has a comprehensive report on the career of Theodore Roosevelt during The Great Heat Wave of 1896 in New York City.  The eastern CT fyke net fishery for winter flounder had largely failed by 1910 – bay scallops were practically nonexistent.
But fishers also noticed some distinct habitat changes then; eelgrass which was almost cleared completely out of the coves by the 1870s storms was back and formed huge dense monocultures (meadows), Brant feasted upon this eelgrass and populations of Brant soared as conditions now favored lush eelgrass growths. Eelgrass meadows trapped organic matter, not disturbed by storms which then rotted and turned black in high heat.  Oyster fishers at the time complained the most about these “new habitat conditions” and the first reports of ruinous black “mud” came from Great Salt Pond research in Rhode Island (1898) and the work of Rhode Island Experiment Station run by Dr. G. W. Fields. Organic matter washed into streams with manure, a dairy industry practice then and formed a slurry of rain driven organic oatmeal  that buried previous “hard” bottoms and now were soft and sulfur smelling which killed river oyster beds.  In the high heat this organic material started to rot and produce hydrogen sulfide, as recorded by the coastal residents who reported the “marsh stinks” the infamous rotten egg smells. That happens today also, and surprisingly Niantic Bay, Connecticut had a brush perhaps with hydrogen sulfide toxicity in August 2009. Then newscasts WTNH-New Haven contained reports of blue crabs crawling on land to escape the “low tide” Niantic Bay (River) waters with pungent smells. (Blue Crabs Picking Land Over Niantic, Friday August 7, 2009 by Jamie Muro).  I believe this to be similar to more southern crab “jubilees” when blue crabs walk ashore by the tens of thousands. The August date and very hot temperatures suggests a hydrogen sulfide toxic “event.”

When coves turned black, sulfate reduction processes accelerated and fish kills soon followed- that was the 1890s.  These conditions persisted into the 1920s (Grabau 1921).

But as oyster fishers complained about black muds lobster fishers also watched as their fishery collapsed, and the lobster die offs peaked between 1898 and 1905. Bay scallopers also were out of business, not from overfishing but because instead of cold water corraline reds algae and red weed (thought to be the real scallop grass) such as the deep water Narragansett bay scallop habitats were now covered with eelgrass and in high heat acidic conditions were lethal to bay scallop sets (dissolves shells).  But as the bay scallop, lobster and inshore winter flounder fishers saw disappointing catches, those blue crabbing, catching soft shell clams, striped bass, and those involved in oyster culture on hardened bottoms were reporting very positive increases catches couldn’t be better. And for every acre of oyster and clam shells placed on aquaculture acreage, it buffered acidic marine soils for hard shell clams while creating more habitat for winter flounder. 

The year following the Portland Gale, the Connecticut oyster set (1899) was to be the set of the century, soft shell clams set heavy on Cape Cod, blue crabbing soared region wide north even into Buzzards Bay and during this heat, striped bass grew huge.  Many Connecticut River clammers converted their skiffs into guide boats to take New York hunters duck hunting in Connecticut River marshes no longer iced in as before, and now early “hot” springs made duck hunting and turtle trapping the business of necessity not choice.  Noank, once of the center of Connecticut’s lobster fishery became a community of coastal cottages and the place to “torch light” blue crabs at night. Striped bass fishing became a popular past time for the then rich and famous. Many northern islands walking fishing “stations” were build (few storms) and the bait used to catch some of the largest stripers then that would be 2 pound lobsters or soft shell blue crabs.  Fishers and hunters were in “The Great Heat,” a period in New England’s climate history of very warm hot summers and few strong storms.   If you were to examine the lobster and blue crab fisheries today besides habitat quality indicators that are present today they will provide some answers to habitat questions asked over a century ago.  What happened to the Southern New England lobster fishery in 1898 and a century later Connecticut again has experienced a lobster die off while an amazing surge in blue crabs. Why?

These habitat changes were signaled in both cases by the fisheries noticing bottom habitat changes, the muck that covered so many estuarine bay bottoms, and produced those sulfide smells, today that muck is called Sapropel and is the largest indicator we have to habitat reversals and fishery transitions. Fishers in New England wide raised the Sapropel alarm bell in the 1980s and looking back they were correct to do so.  In one of the few case histories of this sulfur rich mud impacting fisheries could be the Long Island duck farms of the 1950s and 1960s. The appearance (or disappearance) of Sapropel may become a key indicator of climate induced habitat change. That case history is under review presently.

All About Sapropel – and Habitat Questions from Western Connecticut Crabbers

In July 2011 we had a large die off of adult blue crabs in western CT during a heavy rainstorm. It was hot; also a time of heavy West Nile reported chemical pesticide and reported application of brickets into street drains.  A large migration of crabs had already left the Housatonic River and was heading east, and western Connecticut crabbing had been excellent following another great 2010 year. After the heavy July 2011 rain event, many western crabbers noticed a significant brown coloration to the water. This brown color is linked to the breakdown of oak leaves. Tannin, an acid, is very high in oak leaves.  Some reported that the waters also “smelled” badly like sulfur. This hydrogen sulfide smell is attributed to coastal bodies of water and salt marshes in late summer when dissolved oxygen is at its lowest point. Bacterial processes in high heat and low oxygen tends to reduce organic matter (leaves) by bacterial reduction of sulfate releasing the hydrogen sulfide gas – thus the foul or rotten eggs smell. This smell (stink) was prevalent in the later stages of The Great Heat a century ago and noticed by coastal residents near marshes. That also occurs today and many coastal residents can confirm this late summer event. The rainfall may have dislodged rotting leaves increasing levels of hydrogen sulfide in tidal areas. The same areas that had been so productive for blue crabs can lead to high sulfide levels and might trigger these large late summer migrations.

Warm waters and few storms helps the blue crabs habitats but as with the lobsters, great catches are made just before a habitat crash – and the blue crabs in Connecticut might be facing a similar tipping point – an almost forgotten hydrogen sulfide toxicity in the water itself. This is due perhaps to the buildup of black sulfurous mud called Sapropel. In warm weather leaves and organic matter rots and produces Sapropel. It accumulates rapidly with few storms to wash it out it can reach several feet deep – locally it’s called Black Mayonnaise, and is often a dominant habitat type. Not too much is known about the extent of Sapropel deposits in Connecticut. Key scientists worldwide were looking at it just after The Great Heat 1880-1920, and had convened a world conference about sulfurous mud just prior to World War II. The conference (1938) papers were eventually printed in 1958 but by that time we were in the period of cold and numerous storms, the North Atlantic Oscillation.  Estuarine habitats had reversed - Sapropel deposits were washed away and from bays, coves and salt ponds, and a new habitat type, estuarine bivalve shell now became dominant. Winter flounder was enhanced by firm bottoms estuarine shell, while blue crabs which need the Sapropel to burrow into during the winter – for long hibernation periods retreated -mostly and today to rivers and dredged channels.  The onset of a habitat reversal had “helped” some species increase – up to a point. That seems to be the case with Sapropel, and now perhaps blue crabs.

In a Cape Cod study in the middle 1980s, a diverse habitat type produced the best diversity or biological richness. The observations included one quarter, hard mud, or sand, one quarter estuarine shell, one quarter vegetation, and one quarter small stones (or cobblestones) were the richest habitat areas in terms of biological diversity. When one habitat type dominated total abundance often remained about the same but diversity declined. A dominant habitat type – all yielded some organisms- except Sapropel. This habitat type tended to reduce diversity and in large deposits was vacant of most recognizable animal life forms.

Sapropel did contain eels and eelgrass together; it was felt to be important to habitat requirements of overwintering Blue Crabs who needed to hide from predators during long winter hibernation. It was, however, a limiting habitat type and in large deposits devastating to most shore life, fishers often reported accumulating leaves first - the material that creates Sapropel. Oak and Maple leaves are naturally acidic and in poorly flushed coves and bays collect and rot in summer heat. This is the material that so many kayakers experience (not pleasant and often dangerous) in shallow warm waters. When oxygen levels normally lower in warm water, this organic matter cooks – rots as terrestrial compost- but here the reduction processes create a perfect storm of habitat failings or constituents, sulfuric acid, hydrogen sulfide, ammonium and now removes all oxygen. One long time winter flounder fisher, Louis Bayer, from eastern Connecticut (1980s) watched as his favorite winter flounder habitats were covered with “black mayonnaise” and once commented to me “this stuff is bad for fish” – I quickly agreed, it was.
In some bays Sapropel has past 25% coverage to as high as 50 % to 75%. Previous core studies do show episodic events in coves that have core samples layered then mud with estuarine shell. These habitat reversals could have happened before, many times in Connecticut’s fisheries habitat “history”.

In the late 1970s Sapropel seemed to increase along with Blue Crab increases – There appears to be a habitat connection with older blue crabs which tend to seek out these soft deposits in winter, but in late summer Sapropel becomes deadly. The compost residues from Sapropel has a role in acidification of estuarine soils – bivalve shell erosion, lowering oxygen and in the presence of ammonium which fuels brown algal blooms and hydrogen sulfide a lethal one-two knockout punch to many organisms we as a society value. Sapropel is now linked to the tremendous increase in necrotic fin rot disease in winter flounder populations during the same time, and an increase in the plant nutrient ammonium which favors the harmful brown algal species (HAB).  HAB blooms have been shown to reduce bay scallop habitat quality.

As habitat quality for Blue Crabs increased, winter flounder habitat quality declined. Sapropel may even trigger mass movements of Blue Crabs by the presence of hydrogen sulfide levels in the water itself. That movement has happened the past three summers- although the 2011 “waves” were weak following a much colder winter, blue crabs could be moving to avoid hydrogen sulfide toxicity.

The movements of Blue Crabs east can be attributed to several factors but none confirmed. Several explanations exist:

1)  The movement west as with lobsters is more suited to larval recruitment and as crabs and lobsters mature, they may become habitat limited – and move east seeking greater space or habitat capacity (some of the densest blue crab sets Megalops have been in the Bridgeport/Fairfield area)

2)  Warm summer temperatures drive Blue Crabs out of rivers first from low dissolved oxygen levels and finally toxic hydrogen sulfide (late summer).

3)  Blue Crabs and lobsters appear to move toward the morning light, east as mentioned in old fish observation reports – the same is true for Bay Scallops noted to swim east in Long Island Sound before storms.

4)  Chemical contamination – possibly from West Nile treatments but the July 2011 die off of blue crabs occurred also during a heavy rain – so freshwater poisoning, chemical contamination, and low dissolved oxygen conditions may have all contributed to this die off (crabs should be tested for residue- my opinion)

5)  Hydrogen Sulfide Toxicity – this can happen in late August as rainwater flows become less, and waters warm thus holding less oxygen. In some rivers, up to 50% of flow can be sewage in the summer months. Dense accumulations (greater than 6 inches) of Sapropel shed ammonium and produce hydrogen sulfide in warm weather, therefore a sudden rain can rip into soft Sapropel deposits causing the “black water death” events (fish kills) with fish. These are mentioned by fishermen at the turn of the century. Hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic to most marine organisms and those areas poorly flushed have been known to have high hydrogen sulfide levels. This habitat impacted event associated with Sapropel has been largely missed – but one study conducted by Dr. Art Gaines of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found in the Narrow River lagoons, Rhode Island, sulfide levels 10 times higher than those of the Black Sea.  That was in 1975 even before the hot period intensified in the 1990s.

High organic loadings can also interfere with gill respiration collapsing ionic exchanges causing high mortalities. A high rainfall therefore may be the biological trigger for such mass movements of blue crabs from river mouths to the open Sound – into a predator-prey relationship that also deserves further study.

Crabs leaving the protection of brackish waters to full salinity waters asks the question that many crabbers have also asked, realizing the predator relationship and lack of cover (not many offshore eelgrass meadows which is a natural crab  habitat type) why does this happen at all?  The presence of blackfish (tautog), blue fish and stripers alone are devastating to crabs and the ability to burrow in and hide must be reduced on cobble stone, etc. The answer to the question is they probably don’t choose to move early, they are forced to move early.  It looks like the July 2011 blue crab die-off was region wide in western, CT before the mild winter (not most likely winterkill as last March it was in the 70s).  A flood of rainwater could have dislodged Sapropel deposits and released with the (smells) tannin (brown color) hydrogen sulfide mortality (visual observations by several Megalops reporters). What we do know from the reports obtained in 2011 that crabbers that had been crabbing 20 years or more had never seen anything like this before. These observations during this weather period are extremely significant and important.

As blue crab catches increased in CT after 1998, crabbers asked why, the levels of catches today are somewhat astounding as to those in the 1950s and 1960s.  This year’s blue crab season may answer many of the above questions.

Watch for the Year Class Megalops Divisions – The next few weeks could answer many questions.

The key habitat question is for the juveniles, not so much for the adults. Key to understanding the habitat quality question as it related to blue crabs here in CT is the survival of a now native Megalops set, or the survival of a transported Megalops by currents into Long Island Sound from southern areas or both.  The simple blue crab population response is that it got hot, and that is certainly true, but the habitat question is far more complex and directly related to the increase in the Megalops survival rates here in Long Island Sound.
The 2013 blue crab year may answer many important habitat questions, a year following a hurricane and a very cold winter as compared to warm one. What to look for, the 2012 Megalops (2 inches) the 2011 Megalops now 3 to 4 inches and the remains of those incredible 2010 and 2009 Megalops sets the 5 inches and up category.

A good mixture if various size reports – multiple year classes is a positive habitat indicator. Missing “year classes” or unequal size distributions are negative indicators.  Two or more year classes “missing” in 2013 signify a habitat failure.

As in previous year’s shellfishers will most likely be the first group to report on surviving blue crabs.

Only the next few weeks will tell.

Email blue crab reports to: [email protected]
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 [email protected]

The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.




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BlueChip
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« Reply #1 on: May 30, 2013, 12:36:21 PM »

The Sound School – The ISSP and Capstone Project Proposal
Building a Network of Citizen Monitors
The Connecticut Blue Crab Population Habitat Study 2010-2015
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!


The Search for Megalops Special Program Report #2
May 30, 2013
The 2013 Blue Crab Year


•   Blue Crabs as a Climate Change Indicator – The Blue Crab Question
•   Questions about Blue Crabs and Habitat Change
•   The Great Heat Destroys the Southern New England Lobster Fishery as Blue Crabs surge North into Buzzards Bay a Century Ago
•   Buzzards Bay- Coastal Features Made Warmer Temperatures Ideal for Habitat Changes for The Blue Crab
•   Our Fisheries and Climate Changes
•   What about the North Atlantic Oscillation?
Blue Crabs as a Climate Change Indicator - The Blue Crab Question

Much thanks to Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk’s blog http://linux.maritimeaquarium.org/blog/  and later News 8 WX Edge http://wxedge.com/articles/20130510monitoring_the_ups_downs_of_blue_crabs
 Extreme Weather blog for referencing blue crab climate associations (The Search for Megalops, Special Report #1 2013) and the recent increase of blue crabs in Connecticut.  Although I feel the blue crab is the primary specie indicator of warm waters here I want to include lobsters as perhaps also the best indicator of colder temperatures. 

After the blog site references several requests for more information about blue crabs and with the recent winter colder and longer, several good climate change questions also came in.  Do I feel that the blue crab increased prevalence indicates much warmer water temperatures and enhanced habitat conditions – I most certainly do, but is the recent resurgence in blue crabs unique now to Connecticut or Southern New England in general? No it is not.  This reversal between lobsters and blue crabs has happened before and not that long ago in New England’s fisheries history.  Some coastal core evidence and samples indicates this reversal between habitats that favor blue crabs and those for lobsters has happened several times before.  This identifies the habitat questions that surround climate and weather patterns of New England’s environmental changes and not so long ago fisheries history. 

Many thanks to the Blue Crab Forum http://www.bluecrab.info/forum/index.php  and the Blue Crab Blog site of Dr. Matt Ogburn http://bluecrabblog.blogspot.com/  for cataloging Sound School Megalops reports back to the first program report in 2010.  That has made answering questions so much easier.  I appreciate those instant libraries and the ability to review past reports helps answer these recent questions.

Several of the comments I have received indicate Megalops reports have been used as reference materials in several new studies and historical information applied to other species as well.  The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management deserves special thanks as it has made available the complete Massachusetts fishery bulletin set that have yielded important information regarding blue crab fisheries from the 1950s and 1960s.  Anyone researching New England fisheries historical inshore fisheries will find them to be key reference material.

I hope that this second special 2013 report at the start of 2013 blue crab season will be of interest to both blue crabbers and to those conducting blue crab research.

See you at the docks.

Tim Visel 


Questions about Blue Crabs and Habitat Change

Much has been written about climate change and fisheries but very little about site specific habitat trends.  I focus upon the last century for blue crabs from three distinct periods New England’s Great Heat, 1880-1920, of brutal heat, the period known for harsher winters and numerous storms 1945 to 1965 and the new warm up 1974 to 2004.  The choice of blue crabs as an indicator species allows me to also look north and south into neighboring states observations and landings, especially reports from fishers.  I find that Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts (Buzzards Bay region) experienced much of the same decline in lobsters and amazing return of blue crabs during the great heat.  The 1940s and 1950s saw winters colder and storm filled, lobsters and bay scallops thrived during those times.  When the New England’s climate moderated after the mini ice age 1870s lobsters and blue crabs reversed in abundance.  The patterns of these changes are consistent with also temperature and energy cycles.

The best sources of information for this 1880 to 1920 period are numerous United States Fish Commission reports commonly referred to as the George Goode Series - Bulletins with major selections produced from 1887 to 1902.

These bulletins provide an early glimpse of the transition in habitat quality from the incredible colder 1870s – a time of immense coastal storms that plagued navigation and shipping and frightening cold temperatures which often dropped to 20 degrees below zero for days at a time.  The 1870s had several fisheries reversals, who could have expected Greenwich, Connecticut to become a center for bay scallop harvests, only to be replaced with warmer temperatures for the center for deadly malaria outbreaks.  Noank, Connecticut became famous for its lobster fisheries only to see its lobster fishery fade and see blue crabbing surge but Connecticut fishers were not alone in experiencing these species reversals.  Thanks to Jeff Granoff and Jeanette Marcucci, former educators at The Sound School who came across a series of 1870s reports of the State of Connecticut Board of Agriculture and provided them to assist with my historical climate and fisheries research.  They have proved to be invaluable and provide a critical view of Connecticut farms and farmers who also experienced this mini ice age period and recorded and the enormous toll it was taking upon terrestrial crops and especially fruit trees at that time.


While bay scallopers were loading skiffs to the sinking point off Greenwich Connecticut farmers lost most of their apple orchards.  Just how cold was it in the 1870s, Philo S. Beers then of Cheshire wrote his last article on fruit culture (passed away in January 1875) for the Agriculture Board, 8th Annual Report 1874-75.  On page 326 commenting on the dangers of hollow (Valley) apple orchards as compared to hill top orchards which largely survived this brutal cold.  This is a portion of Mr. Beers last report.

“The winter of 1873-73 was the coldest on record and the mercury sank to a lower point, according to the records kept in New Haven, than for the last one hundred years.  The mercury at my house (Cheshire) indicated, on the coldest morning, 22 degrees below zero… The north and south parts of this town (Cheshire) in the valleys the mercury sank to 36º below 0 at this time, and it was in these places that some whole orchards were killed; others on little higher ground suffered less.  I have visited many parts of this state, in the meantime, and find in all the valleys more or less loss, according to the depression of those valleys but little loss has been sustained on high ground in any portion of the state.” 

This report was not lost upon the farming community who then planted new apple trees on high ground and hilltops became common locations for them.  Fishers also were amazed by the production of bay scallops and lobsters the cold it seemed was hurting agriculture but was helping these fisheries reach new higher “landings” in New England.

That would all change in the Great Heat, which saw lobster and bay scallops landings plummet as blue crab catches and oyster sets now surged.

The Great Heat Destroys the Southern New England Lobster Fishery as Blue Crabs Surge North Into Buzzards Bay
Rhode Island officials were so concerned with the dramatic lobster reversal, reflected by collapsing landings, and the near complete die off of small lobsters (1898-1905) it became one of the first states to build a lobster hatchery (1903). At first, lobster fishers were blamed for the decline, lobster canneries also but fishers provided testimony that even the smallest of lobsters were gone, far below legal size and fishery managers finally agreed  Further research soon directed new England’s lobster hatcheries to focus upon Stage four – lobsters in a kelp/cobble stone habitat weak link here in Southern New England.

And while Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut and even Maine rushed to build lobster hatcheries (the one in Noank, Connecticut just passed its century mark in Aquaculture study, it continues today not as a state lobster hatchery but as a regional shellfish cooperative and shellfish hatchery) Southern New England all witnessed at times beyond explanation a dramatic rise in blue crabs.

The truth of the matter was that habitat conditions for blue crabs, deep accumulations of organic muck (Sapropel) and dense eelgrass meadows was ideal for blue crabs, the same climate conditions were killing off the lobsters.

In 1904 the State of Rhode Island commissioned a huge study about progress at the new Wickford, Rhode Island lobster hatchery (including some rare upweller aquaculture design plans) praising the work of the lobster scientists but noting the increase of crabs  Rhode Island by 1905 had seen its number of barrels of crabs shipped rise 100 fold. On pages 16-17 of the report contains this quote.

“The gradual development of the crab industry is also noticeable [1902 first landings which had surged in 1905]. The market for crabs is becoming better every year. Your commission believes that as the lobster experiments are now on a firm foundation, attention should be paid to the crab question which in the future will determine to become more and more important.”

The “question” about crabs was never fully explained but did follow a general discussion about landings as it seems menhaden were down also, but for the first time in several years “bluefish were taken in the upper waters of the Bay.”  It was just too soon for fishers and fishery managers for them to realize the habitat reversal that was occurring: the deep water tolerant bay scallop habitats of red microalgae in Narragansett Bay had already been displaced by expanding dense eelgrass meadows.  The productive deep water bay scallop habitats were ending.

Oysters, which during the colder 1870s retreated back to the shallow coves and rivers now set widely in the upper bay and planted oysters on firm bottoms grew quickly in the now warm and algae filled waters. The 1906 Rhode Island report went on to the report upon the Narragansett Bay Scallop fishery which for the time was rather bluntly stated on page 18: “There were no scallops in the bay.”  Bay scallops would return to Narragansett Bay only after the severe cold and shocking winters of 1921-1922 at this time The Great Heat or “hot term” was ending and New England would soon feel the full chill of the North Atlantic Oscillation still some three decades later.


Buzzards Bay – Coastal Features Made Warmer Temperatures
Ideal for Habitat Changes

The blue crab question was also being asked in northern Massachusetts – the shape and configuration of Buzzards Bay tended to collect and trap larval stages. The prevailing winds tended to concentrate larvae into the uppermost estuaries and Wareham appears to be the focal point. The increase of blue crabs from New Bedford north to Cape Cod (1905 to 1920) especially in the Buzzards Bay district (US Fish Commission Report the Crab Fisheries 1887) happened from the Acushnet River to Wareham which soon became important blue crab producing area at times producing some 40,000 blue crabs each week  (page 635). This was far different as compared to the much colder 1870s when blue crabs were scarce and did not reach commercial (catch) report or landings; it was just too cold.  That was all going to change during The Great Heat 1880-1920.  And, the climate change would soon impact fish and fishers alike. To escape the increasingly brutal and now deadly New England heat waves, summer communities were quickly established along Connecticut’s coast and those also north of Connecticut.

In one of the most chronicled histories is the establishment of the Groton Long Point shore community (1900-1915), much of the first sites was just quickly established tent platforms. The brutal summer heat also created summer communities along New England lakes and seashores. As some of the cold water fisheries failed and another enterprise replaced it- the summer trades. An entire new industry sprang up in coastal communities during The Great Heat for those seeking the cooler ocean water and shore breezes.


Our Fisheries and Climate Change

Most people when they have the term “climate change” think of more recent discussion of global warming and the negative impacts of pollution. But to fishers of the last century climate change was something else- long term changes in response to cooler and warmer temperatures. Unknown to us was the impact of coastal energy storms; fishers themselves were often surprised at coastal resource abundance, bay scallops and winter flounder surged after the stormiest and most bitter winters. During The Great Heat, winter flounder and bay scallop fisheries declined, only it seemed to be replaced by oysters and blue crabs. The length of time was too long, not years but generations, the colder and energy prevalent 1950s and 1960s followed The Great Heat and those memories lingered.  An excerpt from one of the Massachusetts Marine Fishery Bulletins which the mentions the former abundance of blue crabs in Westport, then at low levels but instead enjoying good catches of bay scallops? Fishery managers did not yet fully grasp the habitat quality implications of climate and energy, but farmers and fishers kept journals. Some of the first connections to habitat quality come from them. Fishers had long discovered habitat indicators such as eelgrass for capturing eels or winter flounder over shellfish beds in rivers. These were important habitats and fishers sought them out first to fish.

During The Great Heat 1880-1920 and the North Atlantic Oscillation 1945-1965, Southern New England experienced the second habitat reversal in a century and for inshore fish and shellfish species another reversal in abundance.

What About The North Atlantic Oscillation

The North Atlantic Oscillation has been identified for over a century. Nathaniel Bowditch mentioned it, as a grave yard of West Atlantic Ocean storms, as many of the storms coming up the east US coast seemed to be heading to Iceland. We know this today as a semi-permanent low off the west coast of Iceland, called the Icelandic low. Trapped between colder polar air and warmer ocean currents it forms a constant low pressure area that moves and periodically strengthens and weakens. The strength and position of the Icelandic low does influence our weather and climate patterns, it modifies Continental air masses and changes storm track patterns. When it is strong the Icelandic low tends to draw cold air across Canada and gives us a west to east storm track, the Alberta “Clippers” – fast, moving moisture starved lows, across Canada. When the Icelandic low is weak and ill defined, it allows cold polar air to sink far to the south into Florida-- bulging the jet stream to produce a horseshoe shaped storm pattern. Some of the most memorable blizzards have occurred during weak Icelandic low periods, 1880-1978 and numerous Northeasters fed by Gulf moisture which produced heavy New England snowfalls.

In addition to increased southern jet moisture weak Icelandic lows help energize the storms created by cold air rushing south colliding with warm air now pushed north into New England. A negative (weak Icelandic low) North Atlantic Oscillation increases the strength and frequency of storms along the eastern seaboard.

The fisheries habitat changes during these cycles are extraordinary.  Since 2007 the oscillation has turned negative  and few would argue that storm frequency intensifies here has now increased.  From 1950 to 1966, with a negative NAO, saw the decline of blue crabs in Southern New England, winters then were typified by cold air outbreaks.  The blue crab population dwindled from The Great Heat levels prompting the same Blue Crab “questions” often asked today with surprisingly the same explanations for the decline.

This is a section from the Fishery Bulletin for the Westport River, an area during The Great Heat that had large blue crab populations, it is very eerily the same explanations are often used today, but looking back it just got colder again. The report is from the 1970s the end of strong negative NAOs.

A Study of the Marine Resources of the Westport River is the seventh in a series of monographs initiated by the Division of Marine Fisheries in 1963.  These reports relate the extent and value of the marine resources of the major bays and estuaries in Massachusetts.  (Page 32).  (Courtesy Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management).
“The blue claw crab is a species which were formerly abundant in the south shore of Massachusetts but has been declining in numbers for a t least the last decade. Such decline has also been observed in waters south of Massachusetts.  Jeffries (1966) noted that the blue crab began to decline in Rhode Island in the mid-1930’s and that by 1938 they had diminished to the point that it was no longer profitable to fish for them commercially.  The cause of the decline of this crab in our waters is unknown.  Many fishermen along the shore have expressed the belief that the loss of blue claw crabs- also fiddler crabs (UCA. spp.) is due to the careless use of pesticides in coastal areas.  While it is certainly possible that pesticides have had a detrimental effect upon crab populations no conclusive evidence has been documented in this regards.” (Page 39).

And what about Narragansett Bay and the surprising surge in Blue Crabs during The Great Heat (1880-1920), Jeffries 1966 – Chesapeake Science Vol 7 #3 fall 1966 indicates that the Rhode Island Commissioners of Inland Fisheries (1900-1914) did mention this blue crab fishery.  “Several bushels could be caught in a single morning with a baited line and dip net” (page 164) but by the 1930s as temperatures fell an energy levels increased (especially after 1938 when most of eelgrass and the Sapropel was most likely washed from coves) the commercial blue crab fishery failed.  By 1959 blue crabs were almost nonexistent and Jeffries mentions a 2 year trapping program for lobsters at the mouth of the Bay (Narragansett) which yielded only one blue crab.  In 1958 New England was experiencing a negative North Atlantic Oscillation.

It seems the question about blue crabs has been one that New Englanders have asked for a long time – centuries in fact.

The study of the North Atlantic Oscillation is critical to fully understanding our changes in fin and shellfisheries.  The state climate office of North Carolina (email: [email protected]) has an excellent bulletin on global patterns and the Arctic and North Atlantic Oscillation (AO and NAO) fishers, boaters and people living along the New England shore will find this information of interest. It is a great resource, readable and has clear diagrams. It is worth a look in my view. 
See http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu/climate/patterns


All reports of surviving Blue Crabs are significant, but it’s still very early to predict the entire 2013 season.  Just a few days ago Upper New York State had snow, warmer weather would help!

Tim

Email your blue crab reports to: [email protected]
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 [email protected]

The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.








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« Reply #2 on: May 30, 2013, 01:37:01 PM »

As a life long waterman of Buzzards bay I found this very, very interesting....thank you for posting this......... 2thumbsup
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« Reply #3 on: May 30, 2013, 03:50:50 PM »

I too found this very interesting and honestly believe that I have observed these changes over the pasT 60+ years.  Even though there have been years when we had a tough Winter, the greatest majority of years either started or finished with the water temperatures getting hotter all the time.  I am honestly not a big believer in "Global Warming", as we have not been around long enough to make such bold and unbacked statements.  You will find just as many ""experts" on both sides of the issue.  The Blue Crab has come back strong in the most recent 15 year period from my experience.  It was just a couple of years ago that Mass Fisheries placed a daily bag limit on Blue Crabs.  Kind of stupid in the face of the evidence that the populations of Blue Crabs have increased through the northern edge of the range of the species.  Am I a scientist on the subject........NO, but I am a sharp observer of the space around me and what is happening to the Blue Crab and Lobster on the South Coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  I will read further reports with great intrest.  I will most likely kick the bucket before the climate period ends, but remember what I said here.  I have sent out thousands of copies of my area crab maps for years now and am most likely responsible for the tremendous upsurge in crabbers trying to get their share along with the valuable pool of information at the BCA.  Go get em people !!!!!

PS:  Do the research on this site, there is no plain speaking data base of info on the Blue Crab like what is here.  THANKS STEVE !!!!!!!
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« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2013, 02:32:53 PM »

The Sound School – The ISSP and
Capstone Project Proposal
Building a Network of Citizen Monitors
The Connecticut Blue Crab Population
Habitat Study 2010-2015
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!

The Search for Megalops
Program Report #3
June 12, 2013
The 2013 Blue Crab Year


•   A Lack of Small Crabs - Continued Concerns
•   The 2013 Crab Year – A Slow Start
•   A Habitat Reversal is Possible
•   Western Crabbers’ Reports

Lack of Small Crabs – Continued Concerns

Some of the early spring reports include observations of large mostly male crabs. Rivers included with large crabs: Branford; Lost Lake, Guilford; Rt. 146; East River; Hammonasset and lower CT River. No reports east of Old Lyme and no western reports except several checks and rechecks of the Saugatuck River, no crabs observed.  Crabs have been observed actively feeding, but many of the lower Connecticut River reports mention silt laden waters and strong currents, not the best blue crabbing conditions.

One good size catch of crabs was made in the lower CT Old Lyme section but catches ranged from 2 to 4 crabs/hour, but that is based on just a few very early reports.

Water temperatures have recently taken a jump up, especially in the shallows but eastern CT usually runs 3 to 5 weeks after the west, again cooler ocean temperatures. A strong salt water wedge is yet to materialize in the Connecticut River.

Teachers at the Sound School have seen just a few blue crabs near our docks, not nearly the same quantity as last year.

The word around the waterfront is that crabbers are waiting and hoping for positive signs now.

See you at the docks,

Tim Visel

2013 Crab Year – A Slow Start

With most of the central areas now reporting some surviving adults (nearly all males) catches continue to be light except for a couple of good catches in the lower Old Lyme - Connecticut River estuary. The Black Hall – Lieutenant River systems seem to be able to hold a significant over-wintering blue crab population- (flooding has been less) but these areas were some of the first to report in 2010 and 2012. What is apparent is the lack of 2 – 3 inch crabs as reports do not mention them. It is thought that the 2 – 3 inch size is most vulnerable to habitat events, and is consistent with the first Chesapeake Bay reports (Chesapeake Bay crabbers now face harvest restrictions).  The first reports in 2010 and 2012 came from municipal shellfish commissions who reported huge numbers of 1.5” to 2.5” crabs over or adjacent to shellfish beds.

It seems early reports of 2 inch crabs were precursor to some outstanding blue crab seasons that did not occur as yet this season, nor reports of the one- inch category, the growth of the August Megalops set that was photographed last August by Sound School teacher Steven Joseph and his son Kelly of Branford.  That Megalops set was huge, and if coast-wide, produced billions of 1 inch crabs. Hurricane Sandy and the cold winter add to the survival concerns.

While it is much too early to predict the outcome of the entire 2013 blue crab year, the three previous indicators of good years (2007, 2010, 2012) have not arrived, large numbers of surviving adults in April and reports of small crabs in May over shallow water shellfish beds. The next timeline is June 15 to 30th, the appearance of a possible delayed Megalops set- which should be the size of a nickel by then.

Look to see these first “star” blue crabs in small mesh minnow seines mixed in with silversides by the 4th of July.  They like the creeks and shelly bottoms as hiding is the rule of order for several more weeks.  Small crabs are easy prey for a host of predator species and the one most noteworthy is the Sea Robin which hunts along tide rips between sand bars on open beachfronts. Smooth sand and featureless bottoms (no structure) provide little protection from these predators which have mouths that resemble the early steam shovels. A sea robin caught off Hammonasset Beach in June 2010 contained pieces of small blue crabs.  Reports of huge populations of small crabs are often from shellfish beds or creek bottoms with pieces of shell.

The shallow areas containing bivalve shell (Tom’s Creek Study in Madison) and creeks in general seem to show the first small crabs. It is these areas that in early spring provide the most predator protection from full salinity predators other than other blue crabs. Tom’s Creek will soon be sampled with a minnow seine to determine if any small blue crabs are present.

A Habitat Reversal is Possible

Several questions have come in regarding the habitat reversal concept and the difference between distinct habitat periods.  One of the interesting features of this research is that the year to year changes are sometimes small – differences only become apparent over much longer terms.  It is not an instant process, from the very cold 1870s the Narragansett Bay deep water bay scallop fisheries continued until the late 1880s and early 1890s.  Only after decades of low storm activity and higher temperatures did these deep water bay scallop habitats reverse from red algae to eelgrass and bay scallop habitat quality turned strongly negative.  Although the climate started to moderate in 1880 it wasn’t until 1898 that massive habitat shifts occurred – most noticeable in the southern New England lobster fishery – to blue crabs and bay scallops to oysters, hard shell clams (quahogs) to soft shell clams (steamers). It seems if habitat quality has two basic parameters – too hot or too cold. The 2008 year for example, was a poor one for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery, and reports include two potential hydrogen sulfide toxic events, (high heat habitat failure). These events are called jubilees – a combination of low oxygen and anaerobic sulfur reduction processes that drive adult crabs out of the water. Those events are large and noticeable, yet small but significant changes over time do not often attract attention and largely go unnoticed.

If the winters on average stay cooler and storms continue to wash away acidic Sapropel deposits (a black sulfur smelling organic compost locally called black mayonnaise) estuarine soils will become more alkaline we may see a habitat reversal in two decades, so it’s not so much a light switch impact – it takes decades for a habitat reversal to occur.  It may be however, possible to check this process. Native Americans may have left us a “habitat history” in their shell heaps of discarded bivalve shells centuries ago.  I have sent some notices out to some colleagues in the archeological field to reexamine some reports regarding Native American shell heaps (middens)  in New England – including looking for blue crab claw points and dominance of bay scallop/quahog to oyster and soft shell clams. 

Some early reports do indicate that at certain levels the dominance (abundance perhaps) changes and the most significant difference is the absence or presence of bay scallop shells.  Bay Scallop shells may signify time periods of much cold and stormier periods.  Oysters like relatively warm and quiet periods.  Hard shell and soft shell clams set heaviest after storms (soil recultivation) biggest sets for quahogs in cold, soft shells in heat.  Oysters it seems appear on both sides of layered deep dark organic matter from a midden examination in Maine at the turn of the century (see Harold Cassner 1985).  It is thought now that layers of carbon rich compost are deposited during long periods of extended heat – lowering the pH of marine soils eliminating bivalve sets.  Similar type core layering has been found in studies here in Connecticut.  (Paddon 1994) (Paddon  2002).   The deep acidic nitrogen rich Sapropel deposits could signify a habitat reversal which then favored blue crabs – much as our present day observations.  Following decades of prolonged heat and absence significant coastal energy events (until recently) many of Connecticut’s coves have deep accumulations of Sapropel.  Fishers started to notice this change which then gathered the attention of some early estuarine researchers.  John Clint Hammond – a retired oyster grower on Cape Cod noticed the increase of “marine compost” on bay bottoms in the late 1970s.  We would often talk about this excess vegetation which would rot and turn black in the hot summer sun.  He sent me a newspaper article shortly after I left a position with the University of Massachusetts with a short note – “It’s happening.”  What Mr. Hammond was concerned about a regional habitat failure and at New York Fishermen forums 1980 – 1982 – groups of eastern Long Island baymen from Peconic and Great South Bay described the same precise habitat changes of winter flounder and bay scallop habitats, mentioning more soft bottom Sapropel. I have sent requests off to the State of Massachusetts to see if the increase of blue crabs followed an increase in Sapropel deposits often containing eelgrass.  Previously hard bottoms often containing estuarine bivalve shell now appeared softer and accumulating plant matter in the 1980s.  Baymen in eastern Long Island were already noticing the habitat reversal before the middle 1980s.  It seems that these soft organic deposits (Sapropel) provide an important over wintering habitat for blue crabs.  A period of storms could possibly wash deposits away especially if the energy pattern storm frequency increased for years.  A colder and stormier pattern could them turn habitat quality from positive to negative.  That happened in the 1950s and 1960s.  What did a habitat reversal look like, fishers had described it perfectly since the mid 1970s as energy levels declined and temperatures began the rise and the 1984 Cape Cod article describes it here – the one that John “Clint” Hammond mailed to me from Cape Cod. The article mentions oxygen depletion but the visual clues describe the reversal or habitat changes. Sapropel is often termed “sulfurous bottom muck.”  Warmer water holds less oxygen than cold, so fishers and coastal residents seem to notice these conditions in late summer.
 
CAPE COD TIMES THURSDAY, JULY 5, 1984

“Scientists seek input on oxygen depletion

UPTON, N.Y. – Marine scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory are conducting a research study dealing with oxygen depletion of salt water along the mid-Atlantic coast, from North Carolina to Maine.
They would like to receive first-hand reports from shore residents and others who are familiar enough with a body of salt water to recognize some of the unusual or abnormal things that occur as a result of oxygen depletion. The study deals with salt water only in coastal areas or in estuaries, not with fresh water.
The scientists are interested in information on the following things, particularly if they have occurred since 1970; fish kills, red tides, algae blooms or scums, unusual smells (especially sulfurous bottom mud), the disappearance of “regular” marine life (fish, plants or birds), and the appearance of “new” marine life.
The results of the research study will be important to people who live in coastal areas because oxygen depletion can destroy marine resources, particularly fish and shellfish.
Anyone who can contribute information is invited to write or call Terry Whitledge, Ocean Science Division, Brookhaven National laboratory, Upton, NY. 21677”
Rekeyed by Susan Weber, Sound School, June 5, 2013 – Printed with permission of the Cape Cod Times

By 1984 the signs of a regional habitat reversal were recognized and perfectly described in 1984 article only a decade after the warm up began in 1974 and energy levels (storm activity declined). How did fishers measure energy loss and temperature increases, as flushing (energy) and heat often as stagnation. Stagnant waters in high heat would be lethal to marine “valued” fish and shellfish species including blue crabs. Sapropel would then shed hydrogen sulfide or the infamous rotten egg odors.

1974 is the beginning of the second “Great Heat” here within a century. Studies conducted after 1974 would not include that the 1950s period of much colder temperatures and powerful storms. That is the great value of long term studies they can “see” past short term events.  Historical fisheries surveys should look at the last century, not just a few decades.

Western Crabbers’ Reports

I do appreciate the reports from crabbers who still report after the 2011 western CT die off. The reports mention a few crabs but nothing like 2010 or the first half of 2011 seasons.

If the Megalops set survived they should have plenty of habitat, space and feed as the current adult blue crab population is at low levels, they do not need to compete with large masses of adults because there just aren’t any.  A good population of 1 to 2 inch crabs could mean a good fall season, but that size will need to appear by the end of July.

For the most part the western reports are grim with little or no sightings, despite frequent checks. It would be good to hear some positive news, but it’s been almost two years and questions have been asked if in fact the habitats are now reversing in western CT.

It is a good question and historically those habitats that tended to reverse first, reverse the “first” back again. It was western Connecticut that reported the first high density lobster die offs and the first to report increased blue crab populations. It would seem plausible that those first habitat areas to reverse could do so again.

It is a long term and slow process and cultivation by hurricanes can certainly speed habitat reversals since post Irene/Sandy evidence of that has already happened in some areas.

In some of the eastern coves and bay bottoms after all these damaging storms, vast accumulations of organic muck (Sapropel) are gone, some areas contain “new” sands and shell fragments as if the bottom was churned, as it most likely was. Reports have come in to Connecticut Bait & Tackle shops this spring that such areas now contain small winter flounder. That is one of the major problems with habitat quality, by the time enhanced fishery levels are reported, it could be years or decades since the “habitat reversing event” happened and little connection then made. If these small winter flounder live to legal size will people recall the habitat conditions years ago that made it possible?  In 1938 The Great New England Hurricane raked New England’s coast with destructive storm surges and powerful waves. The marine soils in many coves and bays were “washed clean” by this energy and acid bearing organics compost deposits removed, it was simply lifted up off the bottom and washed away. The remaining marine soil now rinsed of organic “high heat” acids became more alkaline. I’m certain that predator species were also removed, but the hard clam sets that followed four to five years later were extraordinary; they (Rhode Island hard shell clam sets were huge), the storms continued into the 1950s and hard shell clam sets improved but little connection was made to these cultivation events when Rhode Island hard clam production peaked in the 1960s. At the same time Quahog clam sets were improving, the habitat conditions for blue crabs were now turning sharply negative. As the cold and energy levels increased, blue crab abundance declined. At no time in Connecticut’s environmental fisheries history have I found lobster and blue crabs to be extremely abundant at the same time.

And some of the first fishers to notice this habitat reversal four decades ago were from Niantic Bay CT and the Peconic Bay and Great South Bay, New York. There small boat fishers were keen observers of the habitats from which they derived a livelihood. These habitats were important and noteworthy even if it was just visual observations (softer bottoms) and likely the only long term terrestrial observation process similar is some Connecticut pond and lake associations.  As Connecticut’s forest canopy returned watershed small bodies of water filled in with windblown leaves which composted in high heat releasing nutrients for pond weed growth. Eventually when faced with this “habitat succession” change, the bottom filled with soft organics and they were dredged. Some of the first intensively studied dredged/restoration fresh water projects were done in Clarks’ Pond in Hamden CT which now forms the edge of Quinnipiac University.                                                                                                                     
There is much literature available about this habitat succession process and often the “dredged material” had value as potting soil. It was basically “wet compost”. In the marine environment and in low oxygen conditions this composting also occurs (Sapropel). It is the Sapropel that is now linked with improving blue crab habitats and shares a direct climate and energy habitat succession connection.  It is also the same Sapropel that has been so damaging to bay scallop and winter flounder habitats.

However, all habitat reversals in the past were connected to increases and decreases in energy (storm) levels, whether it was the huge sets of soft-shell clams after the Portland Gale of 1898 or those heavy hard-shell clam sets after the Hurricane of 1938, habitat quality appears to have a direct “energy link”.  And, for those who follow the weather our recent very early tropical storm Andrea followed the NAO storm track mentioned in Report #1 (March 26, 2013). 

All blue crab observations are important.

Email your blue crab reports to: [email protected]
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 [email protected]

The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.










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« Reply #5 on: June 12, 2013, 03:45:40 PM »

Always great information.   Thank you.
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« Reply #6 on: June 12, 2013, 04:19:39 PM »

NICE. Thanks
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« Reply #7 on: July 03, 2013, 01:58:06 PM »

The Sound School – The ISSP and Capstone Project Proposal
Building a Network of Citizen Monitors
The Connecticut Blue Crab Population Habitat Study 2010-2015
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!
The Search for Megalops
Megalops Report #4
July 3, 2013
The 2013 Blue Crab Year


•   Large Crabs in Lower Central Connecticut Rivers
•   Juvenile Crabs Surge in Central CT
•   Large Crabs Abundant in Refugia Habitats
•   Megalops Set Now Feared Lost; A 1960s Crab Season?
•   Long Term Larval and Species Surveys Key to Understanding Habitat Quality.

Large Crabs are in Central CT Rivers

Crabbers are finding male crabs in lower rivers, large and hungry. Crabbing surged upward the last week of June, some of the best reports, Oyster River, Branford River and the lower reaches of the Connecticut River.  Catches have definitely improved --the large clean blue shell males mostly and catch rates have inched up, 8 to 12 crabs/hour with some high catches reported in the Oyster River, Old Saybrook.  But the crabbing conditions have been poor.

 “Worst crabbing weather I have seen,” I quickly agreed a few days ago at Clinton Harbor. The constant rain by June 24-28 had turned the Connecticut River brown, thought to be the result of leaf breakdown, tannin.  The amount of broken and dissolved leaf matter being washed into the Connecticut River must be enormous.

The conditions for spring crabbing in Connecticut have generally been poor; the only places that have crabs are the usual deep holes that get a good change of salt water. Some of the deeper areas close to salt water have been good, Old Lyme especially. The tidal wedge at the Essex Town Dock is building but weaker than usual; again the heavy rain can disrupt salt water flows. The NAO storm track (see report #1) continues to hold pouring tremendous moisture into New England.

On a discouraging note, the one and two inch crabs have yet to appear. These crabs are often in the upper reaches of salt marsh creeks and salt ponds, but the weather has even delayed a survey of Tom’s Creek in Madison; a good reference point as its marshes exist in an area that remains relatively free from huge runoff.  Connecticut may have lost the spring and fall Megalops; they just are not showing up.

A seine survey of the Long Wharf- New Haven tidal flats recently yielded not one small blue crab. 
A good news item is that enormous numbers of 3 to 4 inch crabs have made it. 

See you at the docks. Tim

Crabbers Surprised by the Abundance of Sub Legal Crabs

As temperatures increased for the last two weeks of June and rains accelerated, crabbers found large male crabs very willing to take bait.  Again the boaters who trapped the deeper saline holes and banks found the crabs first with some nice catches, but by July 1, crabs had spread out from these deep holes into the flats; crabs reached the Baldwin Bridge, Old Saybrook, June 27th and increased. What surprised even the most veteran crabbers was the increasing number of 3 to 4 inch sublegal crabs.  From almost none caught before June 15 to a few the 20th, to 20 to 1 now and upward.  One crabber “pulled out” because the small 4 inch crabs had consumed all the bait (Westbrook).  The growing number of sublegal crabs points to a future upward catch level, but it’s still modest, six to 10 crabs/hour, some less and some more than that.

Still poor news from the western end of the state and regional crab reports no western activity. If the one and two inch crabs made it, we will know by July 15th.

Large Crabs abundant in refugia habitats
Pockets of habitat refugia have been known in New England for over a century. Periodic closures of salt ponds have been documented for hundreds of years. These coastal habitats are unique and being relatively shallow and therefore warmer and brackish they were the last places that blue crabs existed in the colder stormier 1960s. These salt ponds often had long narrow inlets to the sea that allowed tidal exchange but subject to storm openings and closures. They protected crabs from salt water predators and floods.

A typical salt pond habitat history is captured in the US Fish Commission section on New York Fisheries (1887), but could be considered typical for Southern New England Salts.
These semi enclosed ponds had soft bottoms with patches of eelgrass and provided seasonal small catches of blue crabs, most for home consumption. Reports from New York in the 1880s show the signs of these blue crab populations just before  the beginning of The Great Heat in the 1890s.  New England’s climate was moderating and was about to have the intense heat waves in the 1890s. Blue crabs soon became prevalent and spread out beyond salt ponds and moved in to rivers and coves after 1898. It was at this time that Southern New England fishers noticed the increase in blue crabs as lobster populations plummeted and then crashed shortly afterward 1898-1905.
Megalops Set Feared Lost -A 1960s season?
Is it any better crabbing now? The past 15 years as compared to the 1960s, I would have to say without a doubt it’s better now, much better.

The 1960s was a tough time for Connecticut’s coast and also the people who lived near it. The winter gales of the early 1960s were constant- some of the beaches in central CT weren’t really beaches anymore, the constant energy had stopped most of the sand from them exposing multitudes of cobblestones. A short step from a sea wall was now a life threatening fall to rocks below often amidst the remnants of seawalls from long ago.

In 1965, my father woke me in our Madison Webster Point home, “Come with me, you need to see this.”  I’m certain the thrill of a sub zero walk in February to the opening of Tom’s Creek wasn’t exactly what I had in mind that morning, but I went and now am glad I did. When we got to the mouth of Tom’s Creek, it resembled an arctic rendering- frozen sand ice walls and snow. My father said something like, “Look out beyond, you need to remember this—I don’t think you will ever see this again.”  He was correct.  Icebergs were along Hammonasset Beach along with 10 foot high ice walls, the 1950s steel jetties put in under the 1950s flood and erosion were covered in sea ice like pictures of ships rigging where the thinnest line grew to the size of a telephone pole.
 
To the west towards Seaview Beach, ice walls several feet high were piled on one another looking more like the Arctic Circle than the summer community it was several month before. It was cold!
For the Connecticut shore, the constant gales were furious in the mid 1960s, 50 to 60 knot winds were common, mostly westerly’s after rain from a few Nor’easters a hundred miles away. Another person was watching that 1965 winter. John Hammond on Cape Cod was watching it also, an oyster grower who purchased Connecticut seed oysters and planted them on firm bottoms in Chatham Oyster Pond River, he had also noticed the severity and intensity of the 1960s, gales from Chatham, Massachusetts which protrudes sharply into the Atlantic Ocean. Soft shell clams which harbored blue crabs years ago had dwindled from 200,000 bushels in 1900 and was now down to only 540 bushes.  In a 1968 Army Corps of Engineers study, the production of hard shell clams and bay scallops was each in access of 10,000 bushels. The colds and stormier weather had helped those fisheries he concluded, but natural oyster sets had always been limiting on the Cape, so for over a century Cape Cod oyster growers (planters as Mr. Hammond often referred) had purchased Connecticut seed oysters. Cold water slowed oyster growth and the numbers of bottom shifting storms had increased. (Pg C15)  From 1870 to 1945 Nantucket the closest observation station recorded 160 gales around 116 had easterly wind components, the much feared “Nor’easters which had gale force winds that went on for hours.
Some of the early 1960s winters he described as punishing and blue crabs were then very scarce. In fact, the 1968 Army Corps of Engineers report and public hearings Mr. Hammond testified mentioning “concerns about cold temperatures and shellfish growth, during a public hearing Army Corps that talked about stabilizing the Chatham Inlet, which had narrowed and became dangerous shoals after storms. Although lobsters were covered at length in three different sections of the report, blue crabs were not mentioned at all, not once. What the report did mention was a surprising surge in bay scallop populations, in Pleasant Bay which had included some “border” disputes between Orleans and Chatham regarding bay scallop territory. Bay scallops were the crop that gathered the headlines, blue crabs were not included in the report, and Mr. Hammond subscribed to the larval drift theory believing that Cape Cod blue crabs were born hundreds of miles to the south and carried each year with tropical fish north by the Gulf Stream current. He had sometimes seen non native fish in the Oyster Pond River.  He felt the winters were too long and cold for good blue crabs reproduction and it killed blue crabs. The cold which had so impacted bottom oyster growth was about to moderate. 1965 was the last year Long Island Sound froze over in that century.

The Megalops sets of last April and August are now feared lost from such a cold “1960s” winter. The larger crabs have done better, in the deeper saline pockets --habitat refugia from the cold and cold winter of 2012-2013.
What could that mean to our present blue crab population – everything -- if it continues to become colder and stormier?

Long Term Larval and Species Surveys – Key to Understanding the Habitat Changes for Blue Crab Populations

The Great Heat would bring many changes to New England’s fishing industry; the Atlantic Halibut trip reports show that by the time of the Gloucester fisher strike, it was already too late for the halibut. They had already sought more northern and colder waters. The last good halibut catches were made in progressively colder and deeper waters, very much different than the 1870s when halibut were caught practically on the beaches.  Offshore fishers would often see new warm water species move north as valuable colder water species to their dismay could move as well. Fish were able to move (swim) when faced with changing habitat conditions.

As the climate moderated oysters which had been harvested to scarcity now set on any clean surface available. The period of warmth (and relatively few storms) would cause the greatest surge in oyster populations in centuries, helped now by aquaculture.  This warmth and storm free period helped create the oyster industry but born in The Great Heat, it would soon perish under the North Atlantic Oscillation with colder temperatures and frequent hurricanes. Oyster sets now “failed” and offshore beds destroyed by the 1960s as oyster hatcheries were being built, much as the trout and lobster hatcheries before them. With habitat instability we often turn to life cycle modification. The Great Heat would make the greatest period of habitat instability for several species including the blue crabs.
Oyster growers a century ago had come to realize the importance of wind drive oyster larva. As George McNeil of City Point once described it as “the sound effect” connecting the prevailing July and August winds as from the southwest, driving oyster spawn back along Connecticut’s coast. The reason, he explained, while Long Island Sound was a relatively small body of water the southern side, New York’s north side of Long Island did not get a heavy shore oyster set like Connecticut.  The oyster spawn Mr. McNeil felt, was blown towards the Connecticut side, not New York’s.
The oyster industry recorded its oyster sets, realizing the oyster set was the future of its industry. Much effort was expended at improving the habitat quality for oysters, preparing setting beds, hardening soft bottoms shelling and washing or stirring of shells to remove silt.
Unfortunately no one then 1900s was looking at the habitat quality for the blue crab Megalops sets; it wasn’t intentional, then in northern areas blue crabs were not considered a resource of value and when blue crabs increased after 1898 most fishery managers then were surprised rather than concerned. Attention then was upon the decline of lobster populations, a resource of value and of much concern.
For centuries fishery managers had focused upon valued species because that is what the public also viewed as important. That resource use bias is still with us today – as demonstrated by the repeat of the same reversal, lobsters for blue crabs. Many reports and grants have been issued for the decline of lobsters, but none it seems for the incredible resurgence of blue crabs in Connecticut.
Fishers often noticed the onset of habitat change, years before fisheries changed, and one of the most responsive species to habitat quality was the blue crab. One of the things that fishers noticed first was the dramatic changes here in habitat quality was from energy storms. The areas most impacted were bodies of water with inlets.
This is a New York Baymen testimony from an Army Corps of Engineers publication titled Storm Damage Reduction Reformulation Study
Bayman 5: Before the 1938 hurricane created Shinnecock Inlet, Shinnecock Bay’s only source of salt water was Moriches Bay. It was like Mecox Bay. There wasn’t much flush here. It used to stink from the lack of flushing. There were also crabs because of the brackish water before the 1938 Hurricane. The trouble is getting the crab spawn to survive. After the breach you could get 30-40 bushels of blue crab/day. Tiana Bay had a good set of blue claw crabs 3 years go. One bayman found 1 bushel of pregnant female blue claws. He left them in the bay so that the spawn would have a chance to survive, but the spawn died anyway. Yet the spider and sand crab spawn lived that same year. Before the 1938 hurricane, there were so many flounder that there was not enough food for them, and none of the flounders grew bigger than your hand. After the hurricane when the inlet was created, the flounders started to grow, but there were fewer of them. Now there are hardly any flounders.

Excerpted from: Atlantic Coast of Long Island, Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York- Baymen Interviews – April 2000 -Page 2-3
As energy flushing increased it helps provide food, greater water exchange (long a problem in the bay scallop fishery) and restore oxygen levels.  The comments about blue crabs are especially valuable.  Sorry no dates but I suspect it to be 1940s to 1950s.  And it wasn’t just the New York or Niantic Bay scallopers who noticed this habitat change – it was the eastern Connecticut winter flounder recreational fishers who provide the most compelling testimony in the early 1980s.  Fishers in eastern CT had long suspected restricting railroad causeways from reducing tidal flushing (energy pathways).  Tests in some rivers bisected by railroad causeways found long ago buried oyster beds now covered by several feet of Sapropel. Those same habitats became productive blue crabbing areas three decades later.  By that time the oyster shell flounders habitats were distant memories recorded in fishing journals kept by many sports fishers.  With energy pathway open and cooler temperatures – those habitats could in fact reverse, again.
Those with natural energy pathways blocked will take much longer to reverse if they reverse at all- and the important ones historically to watch – salt ponds.
Some of the quickest habitat reversals are recorded in Southern New England Coastal salt pond habitat histories. Here if energy blocked tidal exchange coastal farmers and fishers would “help nature out,” taking the matter into their own hands literally.   A blocked stream outlet would mean the ruin of a herring and alewife run, an available crop centuries ago to residents who did take a dim view of this habitat “reversal.” This is an excerpt of a letter provided me while working at the University of Connecticut Sea Grant regarding habitat changes in Quiambaug Cove, Stonington, Ct.  It describes the practice that was common to my southern New England salt ponds.  In times of heat and low energy, shallow and poorly connected inlets tend to “heal” or become blocked by sand. Landowners wishing to maintain the previous habitat value would reconnect passageways to permit tidal exchange. Horses and oxen teams were often utilized and it was termed breaching. This is a segment of a letter mailed to me in June 30, 1987 from Edgar P. Farnell, whose family had property at Stonington, Quiambaug:
“The buildup of muck and heavy vegetation is more of a concern. It certainly has had an effect on the cove as a whole including clams, oysters, crabs, fish and mussels. When the Filter Plant was built many years ago, the north end of the Cove increased the buildup of heavy mud that has continued for many years.
“When my father (deceased 1972) was young, he recalled that every spring landowners along the cove would use a team of oxen and plow to dredge the cove every year between the bridges at a perigee tide. This, no doubt, improved the tidal flow, because when I was a boy, the Cove had little of the muck which now prevails.
“I thought my Father’s recollection might be of help in validating your forecast that dredging the area between the bridges would have a dramatic effect on the quality of sea life within the Cove.”
Energy and Temperature have had and continue to have tremendous impacts to fisheries’ habitats in New England. That includes the blue crab.

Email blue crab reports to: [email protected]
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 [email protected]
The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.
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The Sound School – The ISSP and Capstone Project Proposal

Building a Network of Citizen Monitors
The Connecticut Blue Crab Population Habitat Study 2010-2015
You Do Not Need To Be A Scientist To Report!

The Search for Megalops

Megalops Report #5

July 15, 2013


The 2013 Blue Crab Year



•   Crabbers Find Large Crabs In Central Connecticut

•   The 2012 Megalops Set Is Missing

•   Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut Agencies Share Blue Crab Data

•   Increased Rainfall, Heat and Sapropel Habitats

•   Lobster Populations In Eastern Long Island Sound - A Recent Look At Shell Disease


Crabbers Find Large Crabs In Central Connecticut

Crabbing improved in central Connecticut as difficult crabbing conditions also continued.  “They are here,” were some of the comments at the Connecticut River Baldwin Bridge Fishing Pier July 10.  Some 50 wing wall box traps were set and many large crabs observed.  Catch rates are also higher 10 to 15 crabs per hour but only at the higher tides.  Low tide crabbers found brown water and much lower catches.  In the Indian River in Clinton several crabbers found only small crabs on the ebb tide, but on the incoming tide the brown water was still on the surface flowing out.
 
In several places I noticed what happened last year after a heavy rain; crabs would hook up to the bait but as soon as an effort was made to lift them up off the bottom, they let go.  At lower tides and especially on the ebb crabs tend to become lethargic and burrow into the bottom waiting for a fresh tidal exchange of saline oxygen rich water.  This was also observed last year later (see report #8 August 16 2012). In the Oyster River I observed much the same; hookups were frequent but as the bait pulled a release.  Higher tides seemed much better for hand liners.
 
Some positive signs include strong numbers of the 3 to 4 inch crabs which seem to be increasing in some of the deeper dredged areas and some of the first reports from eastern Connecticut have come in. Some of the areas that seem to be good year after year have crabs again, Jordan Cove, Middle Alewife Cove, north of Masons Island  (Mystic River) and Bakers Cove (by DEEP boat ramp).  One Eastern CT report of concern was of a blue crab die off in the middle basin of the Poquonock River, Groton.  It could be freshwater poisoning or sulfide toxicity -not certain. Warm water die-offs in Eastern CT this early in the season would be rare but not impossible.

The North Atlantic Oscillation horseshoe shaped storm track shows no sign of weakening (Report #2 May 15, 2013). The amount of moisture being pushed up the eastern seaboard is now record-breaking for many southern communities and flooding is occurring in coastal watersheds. The amount of organic debris being washed downstream across Connecticut is enormous.
 
Old Lyme and the lower Connecticut River are still reporting the most frequent, largest catches.
 
See you at the docks,

 Tim Visel


The 2012 Megalops Set Is Missing?

The question of the impact of a tremendous increase in energy and a long bitter winter upon the Blue Crab (1 inch to 2 inch size) I believe has been answered, it’s deadly. It is becoming clearer what happened when a series of this type of Fall/Winter are combined back to back over several continuous years – it would greatly reduce Blue Crab populations, as several long term population studies now show.

However, a good number of 2011 Megalops (now 3 to 4 inches) survived the hurricane and long winter and a good population of older legal size (2012) crabs also survived. Blue Crabs here in some sections of central Connecticut this August and fall should be very good – but not “great”. Concerns are for next year as we just don’t see the 1 to 2 inch size in any great numbers (if anybody has seen them, drop me a line). Several Clinton harbor crabbers have observed that the smallest crabs appear to be “missing” this year. One report obtained Monday did mention seeing some- about 60, and that would be a very good sign.

Last July I watched thousands of 2 inch crabs entering the Connecticut River at night. This year I have seen three – two live and one dead. Other crabbers have mentioned this also. This was a much different July than last year (Report #6 July 19, 2012). The coves and bays really took a pounding last winter and besides Hurricane Sandy we had several powerful gales and upper New York state had snow in May.

The Blue Crab years of 2007 and 2010 were great and shell fishers in both years reported huge numbers of 2 inch crabs swarming over clam and oyster recreational and commercial areas. In April and May these 2 inch crabs were everywhere it seems then and easily caught with silversides in minnow seines along the open beach front. Not this year.

But this situation is not new to the Western Connecticut crabbers – for those areas it looks like all the year sizes are gone and almost no new reports from the western sections. For them it is now the third year of a poor July. Crabbing was good in western Connecticut until July 26, 27, 28 of 2011 (see August 2, 2011 Report #12). After two days of heavy rains, crabbers reported “rushing torrents of brown water- hot brown water no less”. The impact was most noticeable with the 1 inch to 2 inch crab size with many die-off’s reported and it did impact the remaining Blue Crab season. The western sections would never recover to the abundance levels of 2010. The few crabs spotted in 2012 (July 9, 2012 report) did not hold past the summer.

We may still see 1 inch crabs in large numbers but it would be in September. If so, a Megalops set would need to happen in Connecticut soon. With all the fresh water now in moving streams, that may now be difficult. The next few weeks will have much to do with how we enter the 2014 Blue Crab year.  The weather it seems will have the largest impact upon our Megalops potential. Any reports of large numbers of 2 inch crabs would be a positive sign in any area.

Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut Agencies
Share Blue Crab Data

I want to thank you, Derek Perry (MASS Division Marine Fisheries), Penny Howell (CT DEEP Marine Fisheries) and Rhode Island DEM (Division of Fish & Wildlife Marine Fisheries) in the 2013 Management Plan for the Crustacean Fishery Sector for providing blue crab survey data regarding blue crab populations.  The key period is 1998-2000, the time which crabbers in Connecticut first noticed a steady increase in blue crab populations.  This change 1998-2000 is also apparent in the Rhode Island URI Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) Trawl Survey of Narragansett Bay.

The Rhode Island survey is the longest running dating back to 1898 during The Great Heat itself.  At that time Rhode Island fishery managers were concerned about the dramatic decrease in cold water species (mostly lobsters) and increases in warm water species (tropical fish).  Since 1959 the Rhode Island survey has focused upon a Narragansett Bay wide trawl net survey.  The Connecticut survey dates back to a trawl net survey beginning in 1976 but at one time Connecticut conducted a statewide seine survey but my records indicate that ceased in 1958. 

The Massachusetts survey is a mixture of both inshore seine surveys of its southern facing salt ponds and a general trawl net survey.  It also has been conducted for several decades.

Many Southern New England fisheries have experienced dramatic increases or decreases in abundance during the past century nearly all of which have a suspected temperature and energy link.

Two sides of a habitat suitability curve or index is present as it warms and energy decreases and as it cools and energy increases.  If a marine organism has a habitat suitability profile that is strongly “one sided” then wide swings in climate and energy cycles should show these habitat events.  These events represent abundance and the differences in habitat quality are what that makes that abundance possible.

Many feel that the rapid rise in Connecticut lobster landings late 1980s indicated a habitat suitability that favored adults, not juveniles.  The very shallow near shore areas would tend to warm up the fastest and it these same areas that were important to small lobsters (kelp/cobblestone). We may be seeing the same thing for blue crabs only to see habitat failure if in fact energy levels remain high and temperatures continue to fall, the colder 2010-2011 winter seemed to limit blue crabs in the east and central sections in 2011.  By the time blue crabs hit the Connecticut River the first week of July 2011 “the wave” was weak and barely noticeable.  In 2012 the wave of crabs that hit the Connecticut River was huge and similar to those noticed decades before entering salt ponds in Rhode Island – Jeffries in his 1966 study of Rhode Island Salt Ponds even termed it as “waves”.  Some Rhode Island reports from 2010 describe this movement east along the Rhode Island south shore from little Narragansett Bay and the Pawcatuck River east – a few reports were from SCUBA divers who were surprised to see so many blue crabs traveling in a uniform way on the bottom during the day.  Blue crab movements as waves may not be a new Southern New England behavior just one that occurs when they are extremely abundant.

I do appreciate the several emails about the Connecticut and Massachusetts data and combined with the Rhode Island survey all show dramatic blue crab prevalence (upswing) between 1998 and 2000, and a larger upswing 2009-2010.  The surveys also show periodic “spikes” but all three show similar spikes from 1998-2000 and 2009-2010.  Some condition or habitat index was favorable in all three states at the same time.  The Rhode Island data shows the largest change in abundance of blue crabs 1998-2000 since the trawl survey started in 1959.  The Massachusetts and Connecticut show frequent spikes and it looks like I missed some good blue crabbing in 1980-81.  The 2009-2010 upswings were large and record breaking for Rhode Island. Many feel that the 2010 Blue Crab season in Connecticut was the best one in a century.

What I feel is important is while southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut surveys recorded increased blue crab presence is when the lobster population was in a free fall.  Something that was happening that made habitat conditions better for the blue crabs and deadly for the lobsters. The question that blue crabbers often ask – will it last? Referring to the increase of crabs shown by Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut data in recent surveys. The short answer is, I’m not certain. The historical review tells a different story- every warm period has been followed by a colder storm filled period and during the transition decade-wide swings in temperature and energy occur- hurricanes followed by blizzards are often recorded.

According to my research, 2004 stated a similar transition period, extreme hot/cold and a gradual increase in storms. Colder and stormier periods are first picked up in the bay scallop fishery- they have such a short life span and also the blue crab. That is why long term surveys such as these previously mentioned above are so important in learning more about their natural patterns.  That habitat link may in fact be Sapropel – a jelly like organic compost, acidic and damaging to winter flounder and bay scallops.  As bay scallop sets were declining oyster sets were improving, as lobster fishers pulled up empty lobster pots a new generation of blue crabbers found their catches soar.  A habitat reversal of that not seen in a century was happening in Southern New England. A long term look at environmental history including climate, landings and storm data may unlock a puzzle that has long plagued fishery management efforts, “Is it habitat or is it overfishing?”

Increased Rainfall, Heat and Sapropel Habitats

Black mayonnaise (Sapropel) has been attributed to declining inshore fish, and shellfish habitat quality (Boston Globe article, 11/26/11) and accelerating nitrogen pollution Conservation Law Foundation report 10/30/2011.  Coastal residents in many southern New England states now reference it as bottom changes. Its cyclic buildup is part of a natural process now linked to shedding excess nitrogen – ammonia compounds during high heat. The changes in bottom habitats in the 1980s were first observed by fishers, and necrotic fin rot, in winter flounder.  Shell fishers then noticed declining bivalve sets and changes in bottom pH and smells would be minor to the enhanced sulfur reduction/nitrogen storage processes people couldn’t see. The increase in sulfur gas would be associated to the “marsh stinks” a century ago.  In recent times, the hydrogen sulfide gas of low oxygen reducing environments would create long periods of low oxygen and under the proper conditions create hydrogen sulfide “fish kill” toxic events, the “black water death” of the last century.  But, Sapropel buildup is not a new occurrence and many of the first layers of Sapropel were found beneath eelgrass meadows. There are two basic types of Sapropel, forming and ancient.  Sapropel can occur in cycles (such as today) much lower amounts from storms that tend to wash it from coves (see Megalops Report #3, June 12) or warm storm free periods in which it tends to accumulate.

Ancient Sapropel is found in deep marine seas and the bottom of lakes.  It has over thousands of years become a organic rich high nitrogen material that when applied on farm fields especially cereal and vegetable crops can increase crop yields 30% to 75%. (Reference Lakes Bottom Deposits and Their Economic Value In Industrial Agriculture Sector Off Western Siberia 2011; Tatiana N. Serebriakova, Ph.D. or et al. University of Connecticut). Sapropel is now recognized worldwide for its ability to bank or store (sink) nitrogen compounds. This ability has not gone unnoticed and Sapropel has caught the attention of a growing worldwide organic natural food constituency who consider it to be a natural formed fertilizer supplement for artificial ones.

Most Sapropel forms at the deepest most oxygen deficient areas of lakes and ocean basins.  The absence of oxygen is a key ingredient for Sapropel formation. But in the marine environment in high heat Sapropel becomes deadly and zones of oxygen depletion often have soft Sapropel bottom deposits.  A shallow water estuary can often have sea grass (eelgrass) environments important to blue crab and other crabs species over it.  It is a habitat type that can be influenced by rainfall.  Large amounts of organic matter such as sticks, bark, leaves and dead grasses washing into shallow warm estuaries quickly can rot and decrease water exchange. Sapropel tends to absorb heat; soft patches of it with eelgrass were significantly warmer than sandy clear areas in surveys of Niantic Bay in the 1980s.  In areas of “black mayonnaise” it was hot and seemed to drive colder-preferring species away from it.  Many blue crabbers experienced Sapropel and most likely did not realize it at the time.  It can get deep in slowing moving current flows in shallow areas. Several kayakers have had some close calls as well, believing bottoms to be firm only to find themselves stuck in “soupy black muck”.

Sapropel has the following characteristics: it is acidic, black, jelly-like and often feels greasy to the touch.  When disturbed it has a slight sulfur (match stick) odor and will, because of its low pH, quickly stain your hands.  Because of its high sulfur content it is now suspected to be the source of the yellow coloring of the older yellow faced blue crabs (perhaps from overwintering?).  In high heat Sapropel can be damaging in many ways; it can shed ammonia during sulfur reduction processes, a brown (HAB) algal nutrient.  It produces both hydrogen sulfide gas (the marsh “stinks” of the last century) and sulfuric acid, and removes any oxygen for organic respiration in contact with water.  Because of its tendency to form a jelly-like substance, it tends to collect in slow moving currents away from direct energy pathways; it can be found in the quiet upper reaches of coves and bays. 

Fishers first noticed Black Mayonnaise in the early 1980s – especially bay scallopers. The increase of black mayonnaise was very alarming to the Hyannis Bay fishers on Cape Cod in the early 1980s as they had never seen it before become so thick so fast.  Fishers who fished in Lewis Bay were the ones to correctly identify its source as deep brown waves of organic debris (sticks, stems, dead grass) – called oatmeal which in high heat turned black.  In times of heat, a sudden rainstorm (or storm for that matter) could disturb these putrefied deposits releasing hydrogen sulfide and causing the large fish kills (black water deaths) from the past century.  It was the Cape Cod fishers who found in places several feet of organic oatmeal that would turn black in August heat (1983).

This is the same oxygen deprived substance that collects in closed system aquaculture systems and makes changing filters (which also turn black with the same sulfur odors in them) in restricted air spaces so dangerous.  The toxicity of such Sapropel formation and toxic hydrogen gas would cause tragedy at the University of Maine with aquaculture technicians (July 2002).  Sapropel and the toxic sulfide formation can be very deadly not only to sea creatures but to us as well.

The increase of Sapropel coverage of estuaries is the largest indicator of habitat change in the past century.  The fishers on Cape Cod in the 1980s were right to be concerned about the formation of Sapropel, it would go on to devastate the bay scallop, quahog and winter flounder habitats within a decade.  The increase in Blue Crab habitat quality was just beginning but as Sapropel accumulated its impact upon blue crabs would be accumulated by heavy rains – it is those times that hydrogen sulfide is washed from it – the black water death of the last century. Heavy Sapropel layers can be damaging to blue crabs as well. The heavy rains this spring could influence habitat quality into negative areas for the blue crab and we may have seen that happen in July 2011 – western Connecticut.

Lobster and Winter Flounder

If organic composts (Sapropel) is a key link to habitat reversals we should look to other species.

Sapropel and a fungus Saprolegnia is now linked to the winter flounder fin rot disease of the 1980s.  And what locations showed the first signs of fin rot, they would be quiet coves and in low energy areas in which black mayonnaise first collected.  Organic material is rich in bacteria and fungus and some of the first concerns come from lobsters caught over sewage sludge at the 105 mile off shore New York dumpsite.  At the 1977 Rhode Island Fishermen Forums (once sponsored by Rhode Island Sea Grant), Jake Dykstra held up lobsters caught from the 105 mile dump site with shell disease.  I had started lobstering in Long Island Sound in 1967 and had never seen anything like that.  By 1982 the New Haven Harbor was showing winter flounder caught in the Morris Cove section had fin rot in 22% of the sampled winter flounder.  It is a low energy area and offshore surveyed areas in higher energy zones at the same time showed much lower prevalence .  In high heat both fungus and bacteria thrive and in low oxygen marine environments this compost (black mayonnaise) quickly becomes Sapropel.

In the New England lobster fishery, shell disease first occurred historically in lobster pounds – enclosures in tidal creeks and salt ponds in which lobsters were “wet stored” like cattle pens to be sold at high prices in times of short market supply.  These “pens” held lobsters for several months and fed, as usually poorly flushed bacteria and sludge soon built up on the bottom of these storage areas (personal observations, 1977).  Bacteria in warm weather thrived and massive August lobster pound mortalities are documented in the fisheries literature.  What was happening in a small habitat way would soon impact all of Southern New England, as energy (storms) slowed, and organic matter rotted in high heat – what Peconic Bay and Great South Bay fishers described to me decades ago – bay bottoms just turned black and went soft.  With increasing heat into the 1980s, Sapropel deposits grew in poorly flushed coves, a habitat failure occurred first for winter flounder and later for lobsters.  A key ingredient it seems was warmth, the warmer waters to the south had higher incidence of lobster shell disease than cooler waters to the north (Cobb Castro 2006).

Shell disease hit lobsters hard in Buzzards Bay in 1997, but stopped short of Maine waters (thought to be to cool).  In 1998 the incidence of shell disease soared in the southern New England region as lobster stocks crashed.  Shell disease is still with us – as the next section illustrates.   

For more information about Sapropel, see “Sapropel and Climate Change – Fisheries Habitats Degraded by Putrefied Organic Debris in High Heat, Low Energy Conditions” available from the Sound School Adult Education program. Contact Sue Weber ([email protected]).

Lobster Shell Disease: A Grim Reminder of a Habitat Failure

The May 15, 2013 newsletter #2 contained a report by one of our Sound School students, Cole London, regarding his blue crab research in Barnegat Bay. In this issue, research regarding lobster shell disease conducted by Tyler Greco, a Sound School student, and co-author Tim Verastegui, a student at Windham High School, is presented. The research took place at Project Oceanology Ocean Diversity Institute (ODI) during Session 2 July 22- August 17, 2012. It’s one of the few recent reports of shell disease based upon field work that I have come across in several years, a quick snap shot look that also has a historical section, looking back over previous summer ODI sessions. We have had several Sound School students attend this excellent program at Project Oceanology. Thanks Tyler for mentioning it to me recently!

A large thank you to Kirsten Tomlinson of Project Oceanology for sending this article to us and for approving the article and its publication in this newsletter.

Tim Visel


LOBSTER POPULATIONS IN EASTERN LONG ISLAND SOUND
Project Oceanology ODI – Session 2, July 22 – August 17, 2012

Tyler Greco-The Sound School
Tim Verastegui – Windham High School
(Figures and charts deleted due to space limitations)

The Ocean Diversity Institute was funded by the Connecticut State Department of Education Office of Educational Equity through the Interdistrict Cooperative Grants Program.

Introduction

This study is about the health and population of lobsters in Long Island Sound. Lobsters belong to the subphylum of Crustacea, which is a part of the Arthropod phylum. Crustaceans have several jointed appendates, an exoskeleton, and segmented bodies. Lobsters live in rocky environment s and cool waters. Long Island Sound is an estuary; an estuary is where fresh water from the rivers mix with saltwater from the ocean, creating brackish water. Lobsters are studied because they are important to commercial fishermen and marine biologists. They are also essential to their ecosystem because of their place in the food web. They are predators as well as scavengers because they look on the bottom for dead and decaying creatures, and also eat fish and crabs.
The legal lobster size has a minimum of 86 millimeters; anything smaller is illegal and must be thrown back. A fine will be issued if lobsters smaller than 86 millimeters are kept.
Shell disease is caused by a bacterium that attacks from the outside of the lobster through its shell (Marceau and Mistry, 2011). It only affects the shell and the carapace at first but over time it starts creating internal damage (Marceau and Mistry, 2011). Shell disease keeps the lobster from milting and may cause death if it is severe. The four stages of shell disease are: Stage 0: no symptoms; Stage 1: 1%-10% coverage of its shell; Stage 2: 11%-50% coverage; Stage 3: more than 50% coverage of the shell.
Based on Marceau and Mistry’s past studies, it is expected that fewer lobsters will be caught throughout this study than in 2009 because the population of lobsters has been decreasing for the past several years. In 2006, Payne and Rice (2006) caught 423 lobsters over a three-week period. At the peak of the lobster fishery in 2009, Estrin and Wiseman (2009) caught 759 lobsters over 15 days. In 2011, Marceau and Mistry (2011) caught 493 lobsters over a three-week period.
In comparison to previous studies, it is expected that a smaller percentage of lobsters with shell disease will be found than last year. It is also expected that mostly sublegal sized lobsters will be found because of the proximity of the pots to the shoreline. Previous studies show that more male lobsters were caught than female lobsters, so it is hypothesized that more males than females will be caught (Marceau and Mistry, 2011).

Methods

Ten lobster pots were set out in Long Island Sound on July 30, 2012 (Fig.1). Seven of the lobster pots were placed along the Avery Point shoreline and three lobster pots were placed around Pine Island. The pots were pulled July 31, August 1 through August 10 and rebaited each time. The pots soaked overnight except over the weekend when the pots soaked for two days.
All lobsters and by-catch were removed from the pots and measured to the nearest millimeter using calipers. The lobsters were measured from the eye socket to the end of the carapace. The crabs were measured from one side of the shell to the other side of the shell. Gender was also determined for the lobsters and other by-catch such as crabs. All lobsters were checked for shell disease using the shell disease index. After all the lobsters and by-catch were measured, they were released back into Long Island Sound.

Results

During this study, a total of 284 lobsters were caught. Pot 2, off of Pine Island, caught most lobsters with a total of 46 individual. Pot 4, near Avery Point caught the least lobsters with a total 12 individual.
The majority of the lobsters were caught without shell disease. Eighty four percent of the lobsters exhibited no signs of shell disease, while only 12% of the lobsters had a shell disease index (SSDI) of 1. Three percent of the lobsters had Stage 2 shell disease and only 1% of the lobsters had Stage 3 shell disease.
Ninety lobsters were caught within the range from 70-79.9 millimeters; this was also the highest amount of lobsters caught in any other size class. The second highest size class consisted of 59 lobsters ranging from 60-69.9 millimeters.
Ninety-three percent of the lobsters caught were sublegal. Therefore 93% of the total lobsters caught were smaller than 86 millimeters. Only 7% of the lobsters caught were legal size. Out of the 284 lobsters were males and 96 of the lobsters caught were females.
The lobster population in Eastern Long Island Sound has decreased since its peak in 2009 when a total of 759 lobsters were caught. The lobster population in 2011 was reduced to 493 while 284 lobsters were captured this year.

It was expected that fewer lobsters would be caught this year compared to previous years. Fewer lobsters were caught this year than in 2006, 2009 and 2011. The population is still recovering from the die off in 1998-1999 from shell disease. Another possible explanation for the decrease in population is an increase in water temperature because the lobsters thrive in cool water.

It was expected that a smaller percentage of lobsters with shell disease would be caught compared to lobsters without shell disease. This hypothesis was supported; 44 lobsters with shell disease ranging from stages 1-3 were caught compared to 240 lobsters without shell disease. Although shell disease is spreading across the Northeast coastal areas, a small percentage of lobsters with shell disease were found (Somers, 2005). Thirty percent of lobsters in Long Island Sound and Southern New England have shell disease. If the sample time was increased more lobsters with shell disease may have been captured.

It was expected that more sublegal sized lobsters would be caught than legal sized lobsters. This hypothesis was supported because there were 263 sublegal lobsters and 21 legal sized lobsters captured. Commercial lobstermen have been removing legal sized lobsters from the environment and that is why the results show more sublegal sized lobsters were captured.

The last hypothesis stated more male lobsters than female lobsters would be caught. During this study 188 male lobsters and 96 females were caught, supporting this hypothesis. Male lobsters like to stay in shallow waters unlike females with eggs. Mature females migrate to deeper waters than males (Factor, 1995). That may be why only 1 female with eggs was caught.

This study is important because lobsters are an essential part of the ecosystem as well as impacting the food chain. The lobster fishery is important both economically and because it provides a food source. The lobster industry also provides jobs for many people.

References
Estrin, N., and N, Wiseman. 2009 Lobster Populations in Eastern Long Island Sound. SMSP 2009 session 3, Project Oceanology, Groton, Ct
Marceau, J., and H. Mistry. 2001. Lobster Populations in Eastern Long Island Sound. SMSP 2011, Session 3, Project Oceanology, Groton, CT
Payne, C., and J. Rice. 2006. Lobster Populations in Eastern Long Island Sound. SMSP 2006, Session 3, Project Oceanology, Groton, CT.



Acknowledgements

The staff and students of the 2012 Project Oceanology Ocean Diversity Institute Session 2 wish to thank the following for their generous support:
Pfizer Incorporated
Russell Smith, Project Oceanology
Ian Morrison, Project Oceanology
The families of the staff and students

______

Every observation is valuable as we learn more about our blue crab population. 
Email blue crab reports to: [email protected]

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- Email: [email protected]

The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.

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« Reply #9 on: July 18, 2013, 08:05:10 AM »

Great reports.   Thank you for posting these.
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