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Author Topic: Megalops Special Report #3 - A Habitat History for the Blue Crab - August 2018  (Read 803 times)
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« on: August 15, 2018, 01:18:16 PM »

The Search for Megalops – Special Report #3
August 15, 2018
“You don’t need to be a scientist to report.”

Megalops Special Report #3 -A Habitat History for the Blue Crab
View, Environment, IMEP History and Megalops Posts on
The Blue Crab Forum™ website

On Sunday, August 5th, I had an opportunity to be a part of the Bruce Museum, Greenwich Shellfish Commission’s Fred Elser First Sunday Science Series held at the Bruce Museum Seaside Center in Greenwich, CT.  Greenwich, CT is one of my climate study sites, a town with a rich fisheries history in the 1870s, a time of much colder winters  Greenwich was famous for its bay scallop fisheries (one of the Greenwich Shellfish Commission members mentioned town reports of large bay scallop catches) in the 1900s with the scourge of malaria in which local and state public health directives included filling in mosquito (salt marsh) habitats in 1912  to a surprising turn to colder conditions in the 1950s and the return of smelt - Osmerus mordax - into Horseneck Creek.
The blue crab talk was great, and good attendance despite the very warm day. Lots of good questions about the recent rise and fall of the blue crab in our waters (It took me three attempts to catch one legal crab for display!)  with interesting reflective comments from local blue crabbers who agreed, it was a very slow blue crab season this year.
A Century ago, New England blue crab catches after sharply peaking in the heat waves of the 1900s fell to isolated pockets of crabs in the earlier 1950s. Connecticut’s recent rise of blue crabs after 1998 is similar to the previous rise after 1898 a century ago.  That previous peak is 1912 thought to reflect a New England pattern of warmer temperatures (1890 to 1920) with similar New England reports from other states who also reported a general blue crab decline (1950s and 1960s) with colder winters.
NOAA climate record the (NAO) catch statistics and catch reports are reviewed as a habitat history for the 100-year cycle of blue crab abundance in Connecticut.
A PowerPoint™ presented with this paper is also available, please send me an email here at the Sound School--  [email protected]  for a copy.

Fred Elser First Sunday Science at the Seaside Center Series
Organized by the Bruce Museum and the Greenwich Shellfish Commission

Blue Crabs
Timothy C. Visel, The Sound School
Sunday, August 5, 2018, 2:00p.m.
Bruce Museum Seaside Center
Tod’s Driftway Road
Greenwich Point Park, Old Greenwich
[email protected]

A 100 -Year Cycle of Blue Crabs and Lobsters
When Biological Habitat and Climate Clocks Align

A Note From Tim Visel

Fishery managers have long sought guidance about the rise and fall of fisheries.  These fisheries have economic importance, valuable commercial trade, direct and indirect employment, coastal economics as a source of natural resource dollars (capital).  Natural resource dollars have a very high economic multiplier so fisheries have a direct social, economic impact as a political constituency – those that have economic connections to the fishery, both commercial and recreational, and to those who consume it as seafood, the general public.

Traditional fisheries management has focused upon individual species and not biomass.  However, when one species declined – another usually increased.  There is of course a time impact of lost forage – changes in habitat or forage species is not quick, and rapid changes in habitat quality and quantity do impact catches in time (based upon legal size limits) but often many years later.  These population changes are usually climatic, both temperature and storm “energy” related.  Spencer Baird if he had not passed in 1887 at the age of 64, we would most likely have a different fishery management history (my view).  Dr. Baird first head of the United States Fish Commission and served in that capacity from 1871 to 1887 and he made this comment at the 1877 Halifax Convention in stating “The status of fishing in the sea is very largely determined by the question of temperature.”

In many respects, management “has followed the fisheries” – John C. Hammond retired Chatham oyster grower instead of the fish.  It was Mr. Hammond who suggested a very though review of the 1880 – 1920 period (see appendix) to see how climate and energy can change our fisheries.  We perhaps no better example than the blue crab reversals of 1898 to 1918 and now 1998 to 2010 in southern New England.

Tim Visel

I respond to all emails at [email protected]   
One Hundred Years for the Blue Crab


I started this blue crab paper about six years ago in 2012 after an Essex, CT Dock discussion about the huge increase in blue crabs (catch rates for four hand lines often surpassed 80 crabs/hour).  In the 1960’s, blue crabbing was much different in our area of Connecticut.  It was much cooler.  I have many great memories of blue crabbing with my father and brother Raymond.  Small blue crabs “arrived” in June and July as quarter size crabs, and we watched them grow all summer.  Late summer was our only blue crabbing times at Tom’s Creek in Madison, Connecticut.  We used to seine the creek for snapper blue bait, silversides being the most preferred.  In these frequent minnow seines, we would see these small blue crabs but not adults and not on the beach front itself just a few hundred feet away.  Tom’s Creek was shallow at low tide and in late fall while oystering, I often disturbed a large blue crab buried in the soft mud; in the spring, I would see some dead crabs as well.  One feature that is significant is that I never saw a sponge crab and very rarely a female crab.  I realize that Tom’s Creek is just too shallow to overwinter crabs, but in August of 1973, the blue crabs did come into Tom’s Creek and I had my best day crabbing ever 45, all large males.  As I recall, it was a tossup to go blue fishing, which was excellent on Hammonassett Beach, but the crabbing was so good (8 crabs per hour on four lines).  I stayed in the creek for the whole tide cycle.  The crabbing was so good I started thinking about designing a special crab pot in 1974.  Three decades later (2005), blue crabbing with my son Willard at the mouth of Falls River in Essex, Connecticut, my old catch record would be quickly broken, 65 crabs – all large males in approximately four hours.  But five years (2010) later that catch would seem small as catch rates now rose into dozens of crabs per hour and when Jon Morrison of the U.S.G.S. stepped out on Essex’s town dock in mid August 2010, five years later, to check on instruments those four lines could produce close to 100 crabs per hour.  (This would be the foundation for The Search for Megalops newsletter series).  I had never seen anything like this before growing up in Madison along the shore, and dockside discussions with Essex crabbers and Bill Yule of the Connecticut River Museum asked a question “Where were all these blue crabs coming from?”  It was a great question that relied on the answer to yet another question, “Where did all the eggs come from to create such a blue crab explosion?” 

A few days later in September 2010, I quickly realized that it was not only Connecticut but also Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts where blue crab catches also soared.  Blue crabbing was excellent in towns along southern New England’s coast that had seen lobster catches fall to low levels not recorded in a century.  These species, the blue crab, had apparently “reversed” in abundance with our lobsters during the last century.  In a review of US Fish and Wildlife records I noticed that Connecticut started to produce commercial quantities of blue crabs around 1902.

It was the century part that was difficult.  There was no one source for our blue crab habitat/catch history – a section of a report here a mention there, it took time to piece together what had happened a century ago in Connecticut, but as the lobster resource declined (numerous reports about that included a multi-state lobster convention in 1903, See IMEP #62), entire reports were devoted to “the lobster problem” but only a few reports about “the blue crab question” as the same area now saw its blue crab abundance increase, sometimes to very high levels.  Some of the best records come from Rhode Island during this period (turn of the century) who fishery managers then called it the “crab question.”  This was a study area introduced to me decades ago by John Hammond that if I wanted to learn about the increases and decreases in fisheries I should also examine the climate and vice versa.  He was the one who urged me to closely examine the change in fisheries from 1880 to 1920 (See Rhode Island letter in the Appendix #4) for climate indicators based upon his experience with oyster sets.

Blue Crabs and Lobsters Reverse – 1880 to 1920

The 1880-1920 periods was at times exceptionally hot.  It was also a time of relative abundance for the Chesapeake Blue Crab fishery.  Summers were hot and some winters mild in the early 1890s then.  Lobsters began to die off in southern New England from 1898 to 1905, and by 1906, lobsters had become scarce in southern New England in close to shore in shallow waters.
The lobster industry had seen regulation intervention before in 1865 and 1875 as concerns about declining lobster size and the prospect of overharvesting.  However, by 1903, fishing managers now faced a fishing failure or “ruination” as it was called then.  A call went out for additional and stricter laws and regulations because lobster markets had grown to cross state lines, a unified uniform regulatory approach was suggested.  Stricter laws and regulations were passed in one state, but in order to be effective there needed to be uniform laws in all states (market conditions and commerce).  Uniform laws were requested and many states instituted them, but without considering habitat capacity, predator/prey, or habitat quality from climate change, the southern New England lobster fishery would collapse again a century later, almost to the precise year (1999 to 2006).  As we have seen a prolonged warm to hot period would change lobster populations again in spite of “good regulations” and now why it is necessary to look beyond just the regulations but to assess habitat quality and its relationship to resource capacity.  It is much easier to pass a new law or enact a new regulation, it does not always provide for increased catches or better habitats.  To do that, we need to look at a sequence of factors –clocks, including habitat, biological and climate, which guide fish and shellfish increases and decreases.

Many times, without considering habitat capacity, regulations could make capacity less – raising the legal size of lobsters for example adds competition for food and space.  Larger lobsters eat smaller ones and larger lobsters compete for habitats (See IMEP #62 The Lobster Convention of 1903 posted on Blue Crab Forum™, April 6, 2017).  Studies of lobster megalops sets are the key to understanding long-term changes to lobster habitat quality.  After 1998, as adult lobsters died, the condition and strength of blue crabs megalops sets now appeared to increase to our south as summers became increasingly hot and eventually blue crab catches here increased.  The winds would blow daily from the southwest, Long Island Sound waters turned brown but blue crabs now increased.  In time, New England marine media reports would call it New England’s “Blue Crab Explosion.”  It was and it happened as lobster populations collapsed in the same habitats in southern New England.

The Great Heat from 1880 to 1920 saw the southern New England lobster fishery fail, but blue crabs surged north into the Buzzards Bay area between New Bedford and Wareham (See Appendix #8).  In 1887, US Fish Commission reports noted the blue crab catches here as hundreds of dozens per week (See Appendix #8).  A century later a positive NAO from 1972 to 2010 is looked as a second great heat for a decade that saw the same rises and falls of lobsters and blue crabs as experienced a century ago.  Blue crab catches again surged north to Wareham, Massachusetts.

In the end, as the 1900’s ended into the 1910’s New England states all built lobster hatcheries, realizing that it was not perhaps all a “regulatory solution.”  Something had happened to the “shorts” and fishery management officials, even those who supported stricter laws, eventually supported the construction of lobster hatcheries.  What had happened was beyond just better laws – it was climate change.  The fishery managers at the time did not know it – seeking at first traditional regulatory approaches (increase legal size, seasons etc.)  That response is far different from agriculture and a greater emphasis upon habitat preparation – soil study for increased production.  The greenhouse movement of the 1870 is a reminder about what colder periods could do to crop yields by shortening the growing season.  The positive NAO climate pattern was broken in 2011 with a strong negative signal not seen since the middle 1950s, this negative phase allows colder Canadian air to sink far to the south forming the characteristic horseshoe shaped bulge named the Polar Vortex by Hurd Willet in 1954.  Cooler air collides with warm gulf stream air and energizes the coastal storms called Northeasters today.  The change in the NAO is now linked to the change in habitat quality for many species including the lobster in New England.  The dry heat of the 1930’s, which drove soil moisture to low levels (The Dust Bowl), shifted east to the Atlantic Seaboard.  When that happened habitats would change as well.

The 100-year Cycle of Lobsters and Blue Crabs – Weather Patterns and the NAO

I have tried to explain during several talks that the weather service was once attached to the War Dept as its function long an instrument over time used to defeat an enemy and its record keeping started long before the weather bureau was moved to USDA and then to NOAA.  Before this time, most of the weather/climate record keeping was conducted by the agricultural community itself.  Farmers had a vested interest in knowing all they could about soil, temperature, soil moisture, and energy systems, and the climate.  We call them floods/storms dry winds and forest fires and growing seasons.  Their well being of their families was dependent upon a successful growing season. When I heard last winter (which started very warm but ended cool) that we had record temperature of 5 below zero I knew they were not the absolute “lows” for the state.  Those records were recorded far before 1891 but in the winters of 1872-74.  Then cold temperatures dropped to 30 below zero for days as the fruit condition report of Philo Beers of Cheshire, CT wrote in his report to The Connecticut Board of Agriculture about the damage done to the states fruit trees 1875 page 325.  Entire apple orchards (the result perhaps of decades of hard work) were destroyed in this artic cold.  Apple orchards on hilltops did much better according to Philo Beers and from that time on when someone planted a new orchard it was on high ground not in a valley in which the cold air lingered for days if not weeks.  Few Connecticut residents realize today that 5 or 10 degrees below zero is not a record not even close to setting because our official records date from 1891, a very warm period. 

In actual fact looking at climate data from 1891 it is from a “warm period,” and is in no way a reflection of the coldest temperatures Connecticut has faced during the last two centuries – only the coldest since “modern” records were kept – there is nothing wrong with that statement in itself but only when it is used to illustrate a trend, the data field is both too short and too narrow to do that (my view).

Much better data fields are available (tree rings for example) pollen in salt marsh peat, or bivalve shell distribution (bands) found in Native American shell middens.  Thus the importance of long term studies – ones for beyond a decade or even ten decades but hundreds of decades is available to us.  Within this limitation some examples are now being “discovered” one of which is the cycle of blue crabs and lobsters in southern New England.  In comparison to “geologic time” this 100-year reversal is just a few seconds.  I have used the example of HG Wells the time machine, going back or forward to get us a view of climate change impacts to habitats but we must settle for the rises and fall of fish and shellfish for that information.  Is the truth about climate change recorded as dead fish – possibly so we have for southern New England an excellent baseline to follow – the glacial period.  That is our newest habitat clock.  It has been very warm in Connecticut before (we have a dinosaur state park in Rocky Hill) and recall many accounts of trawlers hitting petrified wood 100 miles from the shore on George’s Bank.  The sea has been rising for thousands of years.

It is the long-term studies that bring so much information to the climate change discussions.  And climate changes appear to periodic but in no way reduces the concern of continued warming.  In fact few climate change documents highlight the dangers of fisheries while at the same time including natural cycles.

What we know from the past century is that when lobsters died blue crabs have surged.  I have talked to many people about this, the first response is a series of questions (I think that is from the fact that 1898, and 1998 lobster die offs were reported in the research and fisheries management literature but the increase of blue crabs was generally not) that it was perhaps a coincidence (I don’t think so – my view) and that it did not indicate a pattern and if other species have indicated similar rises and falls of seafood (they have).  However most people have never heard of the North Atlantic Oscillation the NAO a climate pattern in the North Atlantic (also called the Icelandic low) known for over 1000 years and possibly far before that about colder and stormier sections of the North Atlantic.   Many times we just do not have sufficient or complete habitat histories in today’s fisheries literature.

The winter of 1872-1873 by Philo S. Beers of Cheshire CT – CT Board of Agriculture – following the loss of Connecticut Orchards from cold winters writes:

“The cause of such a calamity is not in doubt. The winters of 1872-3 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 indicated, on the coldest morning, 22 degrees below zero. No trees were killed either in the nursery or orchard; a very few in the nursery were affected by the cold, showing it in the discoloration of the wood in pruning, but not enough to affect the growth, the following summer.

One-half mile north, and fifty feet lower in a hollow, the same morning, and the same hour, the mercury indicated 30° below 0. There I had another orchard of apple trees, and many limbs were killed entirely, both on grafted and natural trees; they have not, and never will, recover from the effects of that cold morning. In the north and south parts of this town, in the valleys, the mercury sank to 36° below 0, at this time, and it was in these places that some whole orchards were killed, others on a little higher ground suffered less, part of the trees being killed, and others started with a little life and have since blighted and died. Apple, pear, peach and quince trees suffered the same fate. I 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 an portion of the state.”

This communication of Mr. Beers, giving his experience and observation, coincides with that of close observers all over our state. Communication from P.S. Beers – The writer of this communication, Philo S. Beers, of Cheshire, died in January 1875. This is probably his last article on fruit culture.” (CT Board of Agriculture 1875 Report)

A Closer Look At Native American Shell Middens – Harold W. Castner’s Historic Trilogy

Native Americans Shell Middens May Yield Important Climate Cycle/Seafood Cycle Information

An account of Mr. Harold Castner provides us some interesting data.  For decades, the whaleback shell midden on the eastern shore of the Damariscotta River in Damariscotta Maine has gathered the attention of commercial business, archeology researchers and naturalists. This is a Native American site, containing the largest Native American shell middens in North America (A second shell midden, the glidden midden, is opposite on the east bank).  This was the study site of Professor Chadbourne of Bowdoin College, and after a review of his notes on three distinct layers, he estimated that organic humus in the presence of oxygen bacteria took about a century to leave an inch on the surface.  His notes describe three layers of humus, 5 inches (5 hundred years), 3 inches (3 hundred years) and another 3 inches – a final 3 hundred years.  He stipulates that the absence of shells as abandonment but perhaps we should now compare other deep shell middens, do they also reflect in some way three layers of humus which would reflect a slow cold deposition process – oxygen requiring bacteria thrive in cold and it’s the cold the reason perhaps for these layers, oyster recruitment had failed or ice perhaps made oystering no longer possible.  What Mr. Castner left us was valuable information about the humus, the organic matter between the shell layers, some reason had caused the oyster layers to be created perhaps indicating a much warmer climate cycle (oysters range more north with heat) followed by colder periods that cut off suddenly the ability of oysters to set heavily (this coincides with Connecticut’s 100-year oyster spatfalls 1872 to 1972).  Perhaps a further careful examination of Maine – New England shell middens may indicate a dominance of presence of the Quahog clam cycles - A cold water species which does better in colder period following a warm period would leave a layer of Quahog clams on top of a oyster shell band.  (A layer of quahog shell, then oyster shell, would signify colder, perhaps more violent storms - T. Visel).  Did Blue Crabs perhaps make it to Maine during these warm cycles? – I think they did.  Careful examination of shell middens may find the remaining of the Blue Crab.  Key to this investigation is the biology of blue crabs and oysters both seem to do better during warm cycles (i.e.; the last cycle 1972 to 2012 agrees with a more positive phrase NAO).  At the bottom of Mr. Castner’s whale back shell midden account of layers were the stumps of what was described as perhaps tropical trees.

And that organic matter in heat tends to build up faster, the sulfate reduction is much less efficient or “quick.”  It would be as a fall leaf fall instead of one year or two to be consumed now took 10 or 15 years, organics would tend to build, as we see in navigation channels.  A hurricane in colder water could dislodge a huge amount of organics, oxidation is quick and in a few years gone.  In a warm water period the organics tend to stay.  Many blue crabbers reported that after Hurricane Agnes some Chesapeake Bay habitats were changed by this process and never “recovered” to previous habitat types.  It is this process that John Hammond described to me with a oyster period dredging project of oyster pond Chatham layers of “previous bottoms” exposed by dredging.  The previous habitat classifications did not allow discussion of pore size or oxygen flows in and out of marine soils, nor a discussion of marine compost (sapropel) left by climate cycles.  Instead the term sediment is dominant in the literature, however the remains of organic humus decay slowly as oxygen bacteria consume organic matter rapidly. 

Most gardeners know it takes a long time for top soils to form, in 10,000 years some soils only have seven to eight inches of “top soil” the plant remains of trees grasses in bacterial rich growths.  That is why Harold Castner report in 1950 is so important as he terms this organic compost as a “vegetable mould” an old term when the remains of garden scraps formed a compost.  The layers of organic matter between shell layers give us a indication of massive habitat change, he termed as “abandonment,” and three distinct formations.  Post 1972 a warming cycle oyster setting has returned to Damariscotta River, while in the 1950s and 1960s a period of cold Maine introduced the European flat oyster Ostrea edulis because oyster recruitment Crassostrea virginica had become so poor that it often “failed.”  Ostrea edulis is a colder water oyster, which in some areas established stable populations.  Maine tried to do what Connecticut fishery managers did – delay Brook trout extinct in 1901, they introduced warmer water trout, Brown and Rainbow species.  When the waters cooled and Maine’s Crassostrea virginica sets disappeared, they sought out a species of oysters, the European flat oyster (Belon), that could withstand the cooler temperatures.  We know these efforts occurred because they appear in the fisheries historical literature.  Maine seeded Ostrea edulis (1950’s), which is still harvested established a population in the Damariscotta River estuary.  Today this introduction is still found in Maine, attempted during a period of cold when Crassostrea virginica had stopped reproducing or if any did the resultant sets failed.

It is interesting to note that when oyster sets improved in New England after 1972, so did the blue crab.  They appear to share a habitat clock related to warming.  In extreme heat, they also fail, sulfide toxicity, and point to biochemical impacts of bacteria of sapropel, an important climate indicator in our region.  The blue crab, with a shorter lifespan, is more responsive and therefore perhaps an important climate change indicator organism.  At least the fisheries history indicates this blue crab sapropel aspect and deserves a closer look.

Tim Visel


A Historic Trilogy by Harold W. Castner
The Prehistoric Oyster Shell Heaps of the Damariscotta River

An excerpt of an account of Ancient Oysters in the Damariscotta River in Maine.  A 1950 account reproduced from a reprinted Damariscotta History Society bulletin.  A Historic Trilogy by Harold Castner – reprinted by the Damariscotta Historical Society – introduction Richard B. Day printed by the Boothbay Register.

In 1950, Harold Castner wrote several environmental fisheries histories for the Damariscotta River and a village he called Pemaquid in mid coast Maine.  I am sure he did not realize at the time that he would be one of the first environmental historians to portray coastal shellfish history (ecology) as a continuum of events far beyond European settlement.  He looked to those who lived along the coast before his time to write and help explain his favorite topic, history.

In this account, he describes a healthy oyster population in Oyster Creek 1895 and novelty oyster suppers at the Damariscotta Baptist Church and a dredging project in 1900-1901 to Cottrells wharf when some very large oyster shells were dredged up in the Damariscotta River.  (A more detailed write up of his accounts found in IMEP #3 Did Native Americans leaves as a habitat history lesson for climate change?  December 2013 – The Blue Crab Forum™ Fishing, Eeling and Oystering posted February 11, 2014).

A segment of his description is reprinted below but a more recent work Boom and Bust on the River.  The story of the Damariscotta oyster shell heaps – archaeology of Eastern North America 1986) provides evidence habitat species reversals – the presence of clam middens over those of oysters (from a series of accounts The Davistown Museum) changes of abundance such as above indicate a changing population that could signify a different climate.  Investigations of shell middens should yield further evidence of such cycles in coastal resource abundance.

An excerpt of an account of Ancient Oysters in the Damariscotta River in Maine.  A 1950 account reproduced from a reprinted Damariscotta History Society bulletin is as follows: 

“Just previous to the Civil War, Professor Chadbourne of Bowdoin College, made a thorough study of the deposits, and established for all time, conclusive proof that these shells had been left there as a result of ancient feasts, and at a time so far in the past, he dared not attempt computation.  He found many individual piles of shells ten or fifteen feet in diameter and several feet deep.  Beneath this, the soil was made up of a diluvial deposit of sand, gravel and rocks, resembling the land adjacent to the deposits.  There were numerous bones of animals, birds and beavers, and even a sturgeon’s plate.  A dark line ran through the bottom of the great mounds, showing the possibility of vegetable mould, formed during temporary abandonment of the place.  Shells under this layer were decomposed, or turned to lime, as if acted upon by fire.  He obtained shells of other types than the oyster and found some clam, quahog, and several kinds.

Despite the loss of hundreds of tons of shells by erosion and commercial uses, a great volume still stands exposed to view.  Scientific investigation revealed that there were three distinct periods of construction of these heaps.  In each case there was a period of abandonment, during which time a thick layer of vegetable mould accumulated over the shells.  The lowest layer of shells extended over about one eighth of the present known area.  This layer was about three feet thick, and at the base, many large tree trunks were found which had decayed to powder, leaving conical hollows around which the shells were packed.  Directly above this layer was a strata of mould which was some five inches thick.  It has been quite accurately determined that it takes about one hundred years to accumulate an inch of mould.  We can, therefore fix the period of this first abandonment at about five hundred years.

The second layer of shells was larger and more extensive.  This was about six feet thick and covered by mould to the thickness of about three inches, or, let us say, an interval of three hundred years of the second abandonment.  In this second strata of mould were found trunks of large trees, which were of unknown species in this climate.  They were two or three feet in diameter and had grown up entirely over this second strata of shells.  These trunks were better preserved than those of the first strata, but although they held their form, they easily crumbled in this hands.

The third strata of shells had a layer of about three inches of mould over it.  An intimate study of this top layer of mould caused scientists to agree that it was about three hundred years ago when the last deposits were made, or at the time of the Wawenock Settlement, at this place of abundant food supply.”

Chesapeake Science Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 164-170 Fall, 1966
Internal Condition of a Diminishing Blue Crab
Population (Callinectes sapidus)'
Graduate School of Oceanography
University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R. I.

“Early reports of Rhode Island Commissioners of Inland Fisheries (1900-1914) indicate the blue crab once occurred in sufficient abundance to support a small industry. Several bushels could be caught in a single morning with a baited line and dip net. In recent years the blue crab has become scarce in the estuaries of southern New England. Fishery statistics do not accurately reveal this decline because most of the commercial catch was sold directly by individual fishermen and never passed through warehouses.

In the mid-1930's, the decline began. By 1938, the blue crab was so scarce that commercial fishing was no longer profitable. Fishermen say that the last significant run of crabs into Pt. Judith Pond, R. I. occurred in 1947. No blue crabs have been seen here by the author over the past seven summers, and shellfishermen say they are rare indeed. Catches in Narragansett Bay arc insignificant; only one crab was caught during an intensive 2-year trapping program for lobsters near the mouth of the Bay.”


A Rhode Island Blue Crab History – 1904
Blue Crabs Surge in Narragansett Bay After 1898
Thirty-Fourth Annual Report
Made to the General Assembly January Session
Report of Commissioners of Inland Fisheries, Pg. 69
Providence, RI E.L. Freeman & Sons State Printers 1904 VIII Preliminary Inquiry into the Natural History of the Paddler Crab (Callinectes hastatus) With Remarks on the Soft Shell Crab Industry in Rhode Island (1904) by E.W. Barnes
Tim Visel Comments
The Natural History of the Paddler Blue Crab in Rhode Island
(Note: Callinectes hastatus is Calinectes sipidus today)

“Among the minor fishing industries in Rhode Island, the impounding of edible crabs until they have shed their shells and supply the market (which in Rhode Island as other coastal states were also noticing a growing “summer trade” of shore visitors – T. Visel) with soft shell crabs is of no or little interest, and judging from the enviable place which this delicious shellfish holds in the estimation of epicures from the demand for it in the market and from the prices it brings, it would seem as though the industry might be developed into one of considerable commercial importance.”  A preliminary inquiry into the subject was made during the past summer by Mr. E.W. Barnes (whose report is here “given” to the Rhode Island legislature – T. Visel).

The paddler crab (Callinectes hastatus) (now known as Callinectes sapidus or the blue crab – scientific names did change over time – T. Visel) frequents sandy and muddy shores in sheltered coves and in the mouths of brackish streams from Massachusetts Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.  It is known by many local names, the most common in Narrangansett Bay being the “edible crab,” the “blue crab,” the “paddler crab,” or simply “paddler.”  Among crustaceans of economic importance, it ranks perhaps next to the lobster.  It is used as food, as bait, and even as fertilizer.

Those who have had large experience with them say that the crabs migrate into deeper water and are often caught there.  The reasons for these migrations and exact information concerning them have not of yet been obtained.  In the winter, the crabs are pretty generally absent from the shores, but sometimes they are found buried in the sandy mud, begin to return toward the latter part of May or the first of June and remain sometimes as late as November (It is suspected that this section describes what Connecticut blue crabbers have observed a “wave of crabs heading out to deeper ocean waters” – T. Visel).

The soft shell crab industry, in some parts of the bay, especially at Narrow River, there are several fishermen who make a regular business of supplying the market with this species of soft shell crabs.  The product returns several thousand dollars each year.  It would be difficult or impossible to supply the demand by merely catching the crabs in the soft-shell condition.

The industry depends upon ingenious methods of distinguishing the crabs, which are about to shed their old shells, of impounding and feeding them until they have shed and are in proper condition, and of retaining them in the soft-shelled condition, and packing them for soft shipment.

The crabs are caught by means of long-handled nets, and a special lookout is kept for those which are moving in pairs, because as we have already stated, in such cases one of the pair is likely to be a female about to shed or which has just finished shedding.  There are also special factors, some of which we have mentioned which distinguish the crabs that are about to shed.  Thus a crab is suspected of being a shedder if its movements are sluggish and it does not move quickly, has lost a limb, has a new one partly generated, or has a hard dull-looking shell.

Crabs, which are judged to be about to shed, are placed in a floating car where they are kept in separate compartments until the shell breaks open.  Then they are transferred to another car where they are kept all together, and from which they are picked out as soon as possible after they have finished molting, and finally are packed and shipped.

Having obtained the crabs in the required soft shell condition, it is of equal importance to keep them alive (although no ice is mentioned for product cooling – this can be considered as assumed or so common as to not deserve a mention.  This period is in the middle of the great heat from 1880 to 1920 during which the heat was to generate the invention of mechanical refrigeration and a decline in the block ice business – T. Visel) in this condition until they pass into the hands of the chef.  Under natural conditions, the shell will harden in a few days.  To obviate this, an ingenious method is employed.  At the proper time soon after they have shed, the crabs are packed in damp seaweed or eelgrass where they will remain alive for a long time (if kept cool and moist – See above comment T. Visel) but the shell will not harden (To do this, crabs, like lobsters, need calcium ions in seawater – T. Visel).

If, however, seawater be added to the seaweed so that it becomes wet instead of merely damp, the shell commences to harden, and what is known as the “paper shell” crab is produced.

The crabbing season extends form the first of June until the end of September, but the crabs are sometimes caught as early as the last of May and as late as the beginning of November.  The better summer resorts furnish an excellent market at high prices.  Newport, Saunderstown, and Jamestown pay about $1.00/dozen.  The regular price in the Providence market ranges from approximately 50 cents to 75 cents.


State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
Department of Environmental Management
Division of Fish and Wildlife
Washington County Government Center
Tower Hill Road
Wakefield, R.I. 02879
April 22, 1982

Timothy Visel
Cape Cod Extension Office
Railroad Avenue
Barnstable, MA 02630

Dear Mr. Visel:

Dick Sisson asked me to respond to your letter of March 23 requesting information on seed oystering in upper Narragansett Bay between 1880 and 1920. I have enclosed that information which I have been able to sift out from the upper strata of our archives. Although this information contains some references to the seedy aspects of the oyster industry, I am not aware of any more specific information.

The Brooks book (reference enclosed) has apparently been stolen from the URI Library (Pell). I saw it several years ago, and I seem to recall a description of the Narragansett Bay oyster industry. I suggest you try to find a copy through your local sources.

A large quantity of oyster lease records was turned over to David Maslyn, an archivist at the URI Library (Kingston, RI 02881) several years ago. This included maps of leased grounds covering some of the period you specified, as well as blueprints of the triangulation stations used in establishing the boundaries. This may be a source of information useful to you, but I don’t remember any facts pertaining to oyster seed production. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance in dredging out information for you.
John Karlsson
Marine Biologist

Rekeyed by Taylor Samuels, Sound School, Communications, Dec. 18, 2014                                     


Paulmier – The Edible Crab A Preliminary Study of its
Life History and Economic Relationship 55th Annual Report of the New York State Museum 1901 pages 129-138
Crab Fishing Industries of New York
By F. C. Paulmier (indicates T. Visel insertions)
(1901 – 20 Years into The Great Heat)
Tim Visel Insertions Reflect (    )

“In these days, when so many reports on marine economic invertebrates (lobsters) are discussions of the great reduction in numbers (1898 lobster die off) and threatened extinction (habitat failure) of the more important forms (could include terrapins) are filled with plans for remedying this by artificial means (hatcheries) it is a relief to find one (blue crab) form at least, which in spite of being taken in great quantities, still appears to show no diminution in numbers.  This is the common edible, or blue crab, which, from all accounts, is just as numerous now as it was 20 years ago.

{Lobsters and blue crabs had recently reversed in 1899 economic importance (the lobster die off 1898) and fishery mangers were now concerned about the potential collapse of the Blue Crab).

In spite, however of this seems immunity, which appears to depend on several factors, there is no good reason why the disturbance of natural conditions, caused by removing of thousands of crabs annually, should not in time have the same effect here that it has had on other forms, (mostly lobsters and terrapins) and its quite probable that the same story will be repeated here.  It is well known fact that man never takes any thought as to the preservation of wild forms till the difficulty of obtaining them in sufficient numbers for this purposes drives him to taking measures for preserving them from extinction and for increasing their numbers.  In order to do this intelligently however, some knowledge of the life history, food habits and relationship of the forms intended to be preserved must be had and it’s a strange fact that the forms of great economic importance have received little or no attention from this point of view till it became necessary to study them in order to devise means for their preservation.

The edible crab also which next to the lobster is the most important crustacean of our coasts, from an economic stand point has never received much attention, and practically nothing is accurately known of its life history and habits.  On this account and on account of its being (now) the most important crustacean of New York – the catch of lobsters (New York) being very small, the writer at the request of Dr. F.J.H. Merrill, director of the New York State Museum has undertaken a study of the crab from this and from the economic point of view – pg 130.

-   Callinectes – hastatus –

The common edible or blue crabs ranges along the Atlantic Coast of the United States from Massachusetts south through the Gulf of Mexico to Texas.  Within the limits of New York State they are exceedingly abundant in the many shallow bays along the Long Island coast and around Staten Island.  Cases of this migration toward deeper water have been noticed on Long Island, where during November the crabs are seen in great numbers, going from the shallower waters of Moriches bay out into Great South Bay and thence out into Fire Island inlet.  At Bay Shore, for instances, which is almost opposite Fire Island inlet, no crabs are taken for the market during the summer, through they are reasonably abundant.  During November and the early part of December 1901 much larger numbers were observed going toward the inlet and many were taken and shipped to market.  This migration of the crabs depends entirely on the degree of cold.  In the southern states they may remain in the shallow water throughout the entire winter.  Even in the northern states, especially during a mild winter they may remain near shore in the mud and may be taken at times with clam tongs or rakes. 

A cold snap, however, frequently kills considerable numbers of those in the shallow water.  During the winter of 1900, according to the fishermen, a large number of these were thus “winter-killed” and were brought up in clam tongs.”


Manuscript accepted May 1972
Fishery Bulletin: Vol. 70, No. 3, 1972


In the waters of New York State the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, is near the northern limit of its range. It has never been a major species in the catch in this area. Because the blue crab is highly variable in abundance from natural causes even in the center of its range (McHugh, 1969a), it might be expected to be extremely variable in New York waters, and the history of the commercial fishery suggests that this has been true (Figure 6). Landings have declined steadily, but irregularly, since the maximum recorded catch of about 1.6 million pounds (725 metric tons) in 1880. Catches rose briefly in the 1930s, to a recorded peak of more than half a million pounds (270 metric tons) in 1935, but after a minor upsurge in the early 1950s the fishery collapsed. No commercial catch has been recorded since 1961.

In Chesapeake Bay, with major fluctuations, the blue crab catch has been increasing for about 35 years. It has been suggested that the increased catch has been caused by increased abundance generated by nutrient enrichment in the estuaries (McHugh, 1969a), as was suggested also for striped bass (Mansueti, 1961). There is no direct evidence to support this hypothesis, but it is not untenable. Other than the decade of increased landings of blue crab, which began about 1929 in New York, and a longer period of highly variable but substantially increased catches in the middle Atlantic region, which ended in the late 1950’s (McHugh, 1971), there has been no similar continuing upward trend in blue crab production north of Chesapeake Bay. It is interesting to speculate that the enrichment of coastal waters and estuaries in the middle Atlantic region of the United States from domestic and industrial wastes may have stimulated blue crab production for a while, then became a limiting factor as eutrophication proceeded too far.


Long Island Sound: Issues, Resources, Status and Management
Proceedings of a Seminar
May 10, 1985
Washington, DC
NOAA/EPO – 87/03


Notes on Crustacean productivity increases just before a fishery failure – organic enrichment and marine food chains.

In 1987, V.R. Gibson and M.S. Connor published a report, which contained “papers presented at a seminar on Long Island Sound held on May 10, 1985 with the objective to bring to the public attention the important research and management issues in the Sound. The 10 papers address the natural, biological, chemical, geological, and physical processes that characterize Long Island Sound; the status of the Sound's living marine resources; the effects of humankind on the Sound environment and living resources; and management problems.”  Included in their report were excerpts from Yale University’s Dr. Dan Rhoads’ discussion with Dr. Schubel, Dr. Welsh and other present parties about sapropels at the NOAA Estuary-of-the-Month Seminar Series No. 3. Long Island Sound: Issues, Resources, Status and Management.  Dr. Rhoads comments are as follows:

DR. RHOADS: “Yes. One reason I mentioned the importance of the sapropels--these black iron monosulfite muds on the bottom--was the direct point that Peter raised. The system is so dynamic that to measure the change from year to year in dissolved oxygen as measured in the water column would take more money than we have. It's not practical at all.

Given that kind of variability, what you need is a low-pass filter and an integrator, and that's the sediment. I suggest that a very sensitive index of the waxing and waning of this condition would be the map of where the sapropels terminate, whatever isobath that might be. Follow the edge of those sapropels. If they're encroaching upwards into shallow water, it's getting worse. If they're receding, it's getting better.”

DR. RHOADS: “We suggested one handle on this is the amount of labile organic matter as it changes through time going down a sediment core. This is a routine, standard carbon to pyrite sulfur ratio. The more pyrite sulfur you get, the more organically loaded it was and the more likely that you had low oxygen conditions right above the interface. Combined with lead-210 data to date the core, you can approach this problem indirectly.”

Also, as part of the seminar series, Dr. Dan Rhoads presented his own paper titled “The Benthic Ecosystem” representing the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University.  Following are excerpts from his paper:

“This bioturbational activity stimulates bacterial degradation of organic matter and is important for efficient respiration of organic matter. Note the high reflectance of the sediment. Because the inventory of reactive organic matter is low, sedimentary sulfides such as hydrogen sulfide and iron sulfides are also low in concentration.”

“On the other hand, areas of the bottom that experience "supercritical" organic loading have very different organism-sediment relationships.”

“Note how dark the subsurface sediment is in relation to the high concentration of labile organic matter and associated sulfides. The surficial mat of organisms is not able to burn off the input of labile organic matter as fast as it is introduced. This is an inefficient biological processing system and, in fact, the organisms themselves may serve to focus the sedimentation of POM into such areas. with the build-up of reactive organic matter in the sediment and a lack of pore water oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane gas may be generated and enter the overlying water column. These reduced compounds, along with the reactive organic matter, may deplete water in contact with the bottom of its oxygen.”

“What are the responses of benthic organisms to near-bottom gradients in dissolved oxygen? Figure 6 is an attempt to address this question. The data do not come from estuaries but from permanently stratified low-oxygen basins like the Black Sea and continental borderland basins off southern California (Rhoads and Morse, 1971). For most benthic organisms, values of dissolved oxygen above 3 ml/liter are not limiting. This value forms the lower limit of the aerobic zone. Below 3 ml/liter, high metabolic rate species and life stages may be adversely affected, particularly fish and crustaceans. The zone between 3 ml/liter and 0.3 ml/liter is termed the dysaerobic (partially aerobic) zone in which only a few species of infauna do well. This is probably the habitat of the Sulfide Biome of Fenchel and Riedl (1970). Below concentrations of 0.1 ml/1iter, metazoa do not do well and only anaerobic bacteria, along with some nematodes, are found in abundance. Underlying the dysaerobic and anaerobic water one typically finds organic-rich black (i.e., sulfidic) muds that are termed sapropels. These are rich in iron monosulfides. The physical properties of these muds are distinctive and the best description that I have heard of them is that they are like a "black mayonnaise."”

“I want to leave you with an interesting thought about oxygen-organism relationships. Secondary benthic production can be very high in the hypoxic and dysaerobic zones, a phenomenon related to the abundance and high turnover rate of enrichment species that dominate these zones. This production (mainly polychaetes) may attract and support enhanced populations of benthic foragers such as demersal fish and crustaceans. However, as the basinal low-oxygen conditions spread up the sides of the basin, these commercially important predators may be compressed into an ever decreasing aerobic environment. The immediate perception may be one of increased catch per unit effort by fishermen. As a result, maximum commercial yields may be obtained just before there is a crash in the exploited populations. This crash may be related to enhanced fishing pressure, immigration of species from the encroaching hypoxic water, and intensified competition for space and food in the diminished aerobic habitat space. These observations are consistent with the general observation that the· early to intermediate stages of eutrophication may temporarily increase the carrying capacity of a benthic system (Pearson and Rosenberg, 1978).”

“Thus, instantaneous measurements of dissolved oxygen should be supplemented with studies of bottom sediments. What are the distributions of sapropels? What are the distributions of the biological storage systems (sensu Figure 3), and purging systems (sensu Figure 2)?”


History and Methods of the Crab Fisheries
United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries
The Fishers and Fishery Industries of the United States
By George Brown Goode
Section V History and Methods of the Fisheries
Section V, Vol. 2, Washington Government Printing Office, 1887

“The winter habits of the blue crab have never been carefully studied.  Cold weather drives the crabs away from the shores and into somewhat deeper water where they are supposed to pass the winter without much activity, or partly buried in the soft muddy or sandy bottoms.  A very severe winter kills many of them, and after heavy winter storms, many dead ones may often be found thrown upon the beaches by the waves.  After an unusually cold winter, crabs are less abundant then after a mild one.”

Coast Review of the Blue Crab

“Blue crabs are common in Buzzards Bay, especially in the vicinity of New Bedford, and enter the mouths of the rivers during the summer in large numbers.  Acushnet River, near New Bedford, is described as a great abiding place for crabs in the summer season, and as affording good facilities for their capture.  In the spring, the average weekly catch is stated to be about four hundred crabs, but in the fall the number taken is sometimes as great as forty thousand per week.”



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