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Blue Crab
  • The blue crab's scientific name—Callinectes sapidus—translated from Latin means 'beautiful savory swimmer.'
  • Blue crabs not only comprise the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, but are major predators of benthic communities and are prey for many other fish species.
  • Blue crabs are sexually dimorphic, meaning sexes occur in distinct forms. Males have blue claws and a narrow abdominal apron (referred to as the Washington Monument). Females have red-tipped claws ("painted fingernails") and a broad abdominal apron (referred to as the Capitol dome).


Biomass: Approximately 147 million female adult (age 1+) crabs were estimated to be present in the Bay at the start of the 2018 crabbing season. This number is below the recommended target of 215 million female spawning-age crabs but above the recommended threshold number of 70 million female spawning-age crabs. This 2018 estimated abundance decreased from the 2017 estimate of 254 million female spawning-age crabs.

The graph below shows abundance estimates of female adult crabs from the annual Winter Dredge Survey results for 1990-2018.

graph of adult female blue crab population from 1990 through 2017

Biological Reference Points: With support from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, benchmark stock assessments of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab have been conducted every three to seven years since 1992. The most recent assessment, completed in 2011, reevaluated biological reference points to ensure that success in rebuilding a sustainable blue crab population continues over the long run. The 2011 assessment generated new reference points for the female component of the blue crab population (see table below). These maximum sustainable yield (MSY)-based female reference points were recommended and eventually adopted as replacements for the previous Maximum Spawning Potential overfishing reference points, which took into account both males and females. Similarly, the 2011 stock assessment recommended replacing the empirical overfished age 1+ (both sexes) abundance threshold and interim target with an MSY-based threshold and target based solely on abundance of female age 1+ crabs. 

table describing exploitation fraction and abundance of female blue crabs, related to reference points, from 2011 through 2017

As of 2017, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock is not depleted, and overfishing is not occurring. More information is available in the 2017 Blue Crab Advisory Report. The 2018 Blue Crab Advisory Report is expected to be released by mid-July 2018.

Overfishing: No

Overfished: No

percent of female blue crabs removed from 1996 through 2017

Fishing and habitat: The blue crab is perhaps the most sought-after shellfish in the mid-Atlantic region, and is caught both commercially and recreationally. The majority of the catch is commercial. Blue crabs are usually harvested with simple gear: pot, trotline, handline, dip net, scrape, or dredge. Crab abundance tends to be higher in areas with ample cover, such as submerged aquatic vegetation. Most fishing gear used to catch crabs has little to no effect on habitat.

Male and female blue crabs have different life histories, and this affects the catch of blue crabs around the Bay. More female crabs are caught in the lower part of the Bay because they stay in higher-salinity water when they spawn. Males tend to stay in lower-salinity water.

By-catch: Sublegal-sized blue crabs, various finfish, turtles, and even some mammals are considered by-catch in the blue crab fishery. Perch and Atlantic croaker are prominent finfish caught in crab pots, while diamondback terrapins, river otters, and raccoons have been found in lost and/or discarded traps.

Aquaculture: Blue crabs must shed their hard carapace shell in order to grow, and experienced crabbers can quickly spot signs that the crab is about to molt. These 'peeler' crabs are held for a short time in shedding tanks until they molt. After molting, the soft-shell crabs are removed from the water and sold. These shedding tanks are monitored continuously through the day and night. The Blue Crab Advanced Research Consortium is a multidisciplinary research and development program that focuses on hatchery technologies to produce juvenile crabs for potential enhancement of the wild stock and the development of aquaculture techniques for the year-round production of soft-shell blue crabs.

Science and Management

Blue crabs are managed directly by state jurisdictions—the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resource Commission, and Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC). Collaboration between these three jurisdictions is essential to sustainable blue crab management on a Bay-wide basis.

The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office chairs the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (Fisheries GIT) of the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is a forum for discussing fishery policy issues, including blue crab management. The Fisheries GIT comprises federal agencies, state fisheries managers, watermen, and additional stakeholders in the Chesapeake Bay. The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office Chairs this team. The goal of the Fisheries GIT is to promote ecosystem-based fisheries management by providing sound science to support informed management decisions across all Bay jurisdictions.

Blue crab management decisions discussed by the Fisheries GIT are based on scientific recommendations from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), a workgroup under the GIT. CBSAC has met each years since 1997 to review the results of annual Chesapeake Bay blue crab surveys and harvest data, and to develop management advice. This culminates in CBSAC's annual Blue Crab Advisory Report to advise management jurisdictions as they set regulations for the blue crab fishery. Since 2010, the annual CBSAC Blue Crab Advisory Report has been officially endorsed by the Fisheries GIT. 

During the last decade, blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay reached some of their lowest numbers ever due to overexploitation and habitat degradation. In response to prolonged low abundance, CBSAC recommended new management actions, and the Bay jurisdictions worked together to implement female-specific management regulations starting in 2008. The timeline below describes important blue crab management decisions since 2008. Click on each year to view a more detailed account of that year and learn more about the important role of CBSAC, the Fisheries GIT, science, and the states.





January: Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC) recommends an interim target abundance at 200 million adult (age 1+) crabs.

Female-specific harvest regulations put in place for the 2008 season to begin population recovery.

September: Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery declared a federal disaster due to the recent population decline; state are eligible for federal disaster funds.


Chesapeake Bay Executive Order Strategysets a new Blue Crab Outcome to "maintain sustainable blue crab interim rebuilding target of 200 million adults (age 1+) in 2011 and develop a new population target for 2012-2025."

Chesapeake Bay Program's Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team (Fisheries GIT) agrees to (1) ensure a revised population target is reached by 2012 and (2) support and continue interjurisdictional management through the Executive Order.


The NOAA-funded benchmark Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Stock Assessment suggests new sex-specific management of the blue crab population with female-specific reference points: 215 million female adult crab population target and 70 million female adult crab overfished threshold.

October: CBSAC recommends the new female-specific reference points to the Fisheries GIT Executive Committee.

December: Female-specific reference points are adopted by the Fisheries GIT at their full team meeting.


Jurisdictions adopt and implement new female-specific reference points for the 2012 season.


CBSAC begins developing a male-specific management target for the Fisheries GIT Executive Committee.


CBSAC recommends male conservation triggers that would signal the jurisdictions to consider specific male conservation management measures.


The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is signed; it outlines the Chesapeake Bay Program's commitments through 2025. The Agreement includes two specific outcomes related to blue crabs.


Based on CBSAC recommendations, jurisdictions implement a new July-to-July adaptive management framework, allowing them to use the most recent scientific information when making management decisions.


Jurisdictions implement a roughly 10% harvest reduction from 2013 harvest levels in order to further protect female and juvenile blue crabs.


The management strategy for the blue crab outcomes in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is finalized. The strategy was developed by the management jurisdictions and Fisheries GIT members with input from stakeholders.


Jurisdictions continue to operate under the female-specific reference points adopted in 2012. 


CBSAC continues to meet each year to review the Winter Dredge Survey results and provide management advice to Bay juristictions.


Next stock assessment to address priority management questions

Continued work to improve commercial and recreational harvest accountability in the blue crab fishery. Ongoing research


Life History and Habitat

Life history, including information on habitat, growth, feeding, and reproduction of a species, is important because it affects how a fishery is managed. The blue crab uses multiple habitats in the Bay throughout its life. Blue crab distribution varies with age, sex, and season: Blue crabs tend to be abundant in shallow-water areas during warm weather; in winter they are plentiful in the Bay's deeper portions. Males range farther up into the fresher waters of the Bay and its rivers than females, who congregate in saltier waters. Blue crabs are bottom-dwellers that use beds of submerged aquatic grasses as sources of food, nursery habitat for young, and shelter during mating, and molting.

Geographic range: Along the Atlantic Coast, the blue crab ranges from Nova Scotia to Argentina. Within the Chesapeake Bay, male crabs tend to prefer fresher waters in Maryland and upper tributaries, while females like the saltier waters in the mainstem and Virginia.

Habitat: Blue crabs occupy a wide variety of habitats throughout their life history. Offshore, high-salinity waters are used during early larval stages. Larvae move into the estuary and use intertidal marshes, seagrass beds, and soft-sediment shorelines as they grow. Crabs are highly tolerant of temperature and salinity variations and can live in just about any region of the Bay. Habitat loss and increased nutrient loading present the greatest threats to the population.

Life Span: Crabs generally live three to four years in the Chesapeake Bay and reach maturity in approximately 12-18 months. Determining age is extremely difficult due to the loss of hard parts during the molting process.

Food: Crabs are voracious predators and are considered scavengers, eating just about anything they can including fish, clams, oysters, mussels, snails, worms, and insects. They are extremely cannibalistic and are most vulnerable while in the soft-shell stage of molting.

Growth Rate: Growth of blue crabs is strongly affected by temperature. For example, up to 18 months is necessary for maturation in the Chesapeake Bay, while blue crabs in the warmer Gulf of Mexico may reach maturity within a year. In laboratory studies, growth virtually ceased at temperatures below 13° C (55° F), while the growth per molt was reduced above 20° C (68° F).

Maximum Size: The largest blue crab caught in the Chesapeake Bay was 10.72 inches and weighed 1.1 pounds.

Reproduction: Blue crabs mate and spawn from spring to fall (May to October) in the Chesapeake Bay. Male crabs tend to molt throughout their lives, while females have just the one 'terminal' or 'maturity' molt. Female crabs can mate only once during their lives (during their terminal molt when in the soft-shell stage), but store sperm for multiple spawnings. The male crab may cradle the female—a pose in which the two crabs are referred to as doublers—for a few days prior to her terminal molt to maturity, and may stay with her after mating while her shell hardens and to ensure another male doesn't mate with her. Females migrate to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to spawn and can produce between 750,000 and 3,200,000 eggs per brood. Eggs hatch into larvae and undergo a series of molts offshore in high-salinity waters. The larvae then migrate into the Bay, and a majority grow and mature in beds of submerged aquatic vegetation. Small crabs molt frequently, but molting decreases in frequency as crabs grow bigger.

Migrations: In general, males remain in lower-salinity waters. Females migrate to higher-salinity water to spawn. The creation of 'corridors' or 'sanctuaries' has been instrumental in protecting crabs as they travel among nursery, feeding, and spawning grounds.

Predators: Predation may play a major role in influencing the size of populations. Blue crabs are preyed upon by red drum, croaker, striped bass, and other blue crabs.

Commercial and Recreational Fishing Interest: Both

Distinguishing Characteristics: Five sets of legs, with major front claw and rear swimmeret. Males have blue claws and a narrow abdominal apron (referred to as the Washington Monument). Females have red-tipped claws ("painted fingernails") and a broad abdominal apron (referred to as the Capitol dome). Immature females have a triangular or V-shaped apron, narrower than the dome shape of the sook's apron.

Role in the Ecosystem

The blue crab is an integral player in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Scientists continue to study the effects of predation on blue crab populations; the effect of blue crab on populations of their benthic prey species, such as soft clam; and the effect on the fishery as well as the effect of the fishery on the blue crab population itself. Due to the economic and iconic value of the blue crab, it is considered a keystone species influencing many aspects of the Bay's ecosystem.

Did You Know?

  • Blue crabs may be referred to as hard-shells (not molting), peelers (crabs about to molt), busters (crabs that have started to shed their old shell or molt), soft-shells (crabs that just molted and their shell has not yet hardened), jimmies (adult males), sooks (adult female hard crabs), she-crabs or sallies (immature females), and sponges or sponge crabs (adult females carrying eggs).
  • The blue crab is the Maryland state crustacean.


Updated June 2018