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Crab, Blue (Callinectes sapidus)
Also known as: Cangrejo and Jaiba (both Spanish for crab), Greater blue crab, Hard-shell crab, and Soft-shell crab
Source: Wild-caught in Gulf state waters from West Florida to Texas

Blue crab range from Nova Scotia and Maine to northern Argentina and are found throughout the Gulf. There are likely two different blue crab stocks in the Gulf: a Florida or Eastern Gulf stock along the Florida coast (centered around Tampa Bay) and a Western Gulf stock from central Texas to Apalachicola Bay (centered in Louisiana).

Blue crab larvae are found in salty offshore waters. Post-larvae move into shallow, lower salinity estuarine waters. Juveniles remain in the upper and middle estuary in areas with marsh and sea grass, oyster reefs, as well as soft mud bottoms, all of which provide some protection from predators. As juvenile crabs grow larger, they move to fresher waters. Adult blue crabs are found on a variety of bottom types including submerged vegetation, unvegetated sediments, and marsh grass in fresh, estuarine, and shallow oceanic waters throughout the Gulf.

In the Gulf, most blue crabs typically mature within a year, when males and females are four and five inches shell width, respectively. They can live up to three years. Crabs grow by molting—their hard shell restricts growth so they must shed it to increase in size. Right after molting, they are “soft-shelled” and vulnerable to predators until their new shell hardens. Young crabs molt every few days, but as they grow, they molt less often.

Blue crabs generally mate and spawn year-round, but these events occur separately and in different areas. Blue crabs mate in brackish waters of the upper estuary just after the female molts, while her shell is still soft. After mating, the male stays to protect the female until her new shell hardens. The female stores the sperm in receptacles for several months and uses it in repeated spawnings. Females move to saltier coastal Gulf and estuarine waters to spawn. They push their eggs through the receptacles to fertilize them, then onto their abdomen where they’re carried in an egg mass or sponge. Depending on their size, females can carry up to 3.5 million fertilized eggs. The eggs hatch in about two weeks. Tides transport the newly hatched larvae from estuaries to adjacent continental shelf waters where they molt several times. Assisted by winds and tides, post-larval blue crabs gradually migrate back into shallower, less saline waters in middle and upper estuaries where they grow and mature. Temperature, habitat quality, and the availability of food all affect blue crabs’ growth and survival.

Blue crabs are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever food is available, and are an important part of the estuarine food web. Larval blue crab feed on plankton, but as they grow and settle to the bottom, their diet expands. Juveniles and adults feed on small fish, bivalves, crustaceans, plant material, and detritus. Blue crabs are also food for other species; shrimp, jellyfish, fish, and other plankton-eaters feed on larval blue crab, and a number of commercial and sport fish, turtles, birds, and alligators prey on juvenile and adult blue crabs. Blue crabs also eat each other.

Blue crabs are crustaceans with a hard upper shell, typically grey, blue, or brownish green in color. The shell is about 2.5 times as wide as it is long. Blue crabs have two large claws, six thin walking legs, and two paddle-like swimming legs. You can distinguish mature males from females by their claw color and abdomen shape. Males’ claws are blue on the inner and outer surfaces and tipped with red; the fingers of the females’ claws are orange tipped with purple. The male’s abdomen has a narrow and triangular shape (like the Washington Monument) and females have a broader, rounded abdomen (like the dome of the U.S. Capitol building).

With thousands of square miles of estuaries, the Gulf provides ample habitat for blue crabs to live, grow, and reproduce. The Gulf’s abundant blue crab resource has supported important commercial fisheries for both hard and soft-shell crabs since at least the 1800s. Early crab fisheries extended from the Florida panhandle where fishermen caught crabs with trotlines and bartered their catch with local consumers, to New Orleans where one of the first commercial crab fisheries in the Gulf was established to supply the French Market and local restaurants. Over the years, crab fisheries grew with the construction of crab processing plants across the Gulf, the introduction of more efficient and effective fishing gear, and the development of new markets. Harvests of hard blue crabs increased from one million pounds in the late 1800s to 18 million pounds by World War II then up to a peak of nearly 80 million pounds in the late 1980s. Harvests remained high, ranging from 50 to 70 million pounds through 2000. Harvests of soft-shell blue crabs increased from around 150,000 pounds in the late 1800s to an average of five million pounds in more recent years.

Since 2000, Gulf blue crab harvests have generally declined, largely due to major natural and manmade events, including hurricanes in 2004, 2005, and 2008, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which prevented harvest of blue crabs in the Gulf for extended periods of time. Management restrictions to reduce fishing effort may have also contributed to the gradual decline. Despite this downward trend, blue crab continues to be one of the most important fisheries in the Gulf. The 2013 blue crab harvest totaled 46.5 million pounds with dockside revenue of $61.3 million. Louisiana produces the majority of blue crab in the Gulf and more than a quarter of the total U.S. blue crab harvest.

Individual Gulf State fisheries management agencies are responsible for monitoring and managing the blue crab resource in the Gulf as they are almost exclusively harvested in state waters. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission helps coordinate monitoring and management among the states to ensure they’re consistent through the species’ range. Although specific management measures vary among the states, their general approach is to protect part of the blue crab population so they can reproduce and sustain the resource and to reduce the fisheries’ impact on other aquatic animals and habitat.

Methods Seasons Landings
Commercial Recreational

The Gulf blue crab fisheries are divided into two fisheries: the western fishery (centered on the Mississippi Delta) and the eastern fishery (centered around Tampa Bay). The vast majority of landings come from the western fishery, primarily Louisiana state waters.

Commercial fishermen harvest hard-shell, soft-shell, and peeler (pre-molt) blue crabs. Harvests fluctuate widely due to economic factors (market demand, processing capacity, influence of other fisheries), changes in fishing effort, availability of the crab resource, and environmental conditions (variability in the crab population, seasonal changes, etc.). Harvests of blue crab have generally declined from historical highs since 2000 due to the impact of hurricanes, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and management measures limiting fishing effort.

Source: NOAA Fisheries Annual Commercial Landings Statistics 

Landings Summary Data :  

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Overview Current Abundance Additional Reasearch

The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission gathers and analyzes data from commercial and recreational fisheries as well as individual state agencies’ sampling programs to complete a regional assessment for blue crab. The assessment covers both the eastern and western blue crab stocks in the Gulf.

Current Abundance

According to the most recent regional assessment of blue crab stocks in the Gulf, both stocks are fairly abundant (not overfished) and fished at appropriate levels (no overfishing).

Abundance estimates for both stocks have shown either decreasing or steady trends throughout the last two decades while commercial landings have declined. Both stocks’ abundances have varied from year-to-year. The eastern stock typically peaks in years following high rainfall. The western stock is currently depressed and approaching the level at which it would be considered overfished.

It is important to note that environmental factors heavily influence blue crab populations, so estimates of status in particular years may be biased if the environment is not at steady or average conditions. Judging the status of the stock with consideration only for fishing may not be appropriate for this species.

Additional Research

Several Gulf based research groups are examining the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on blue crab populations.

Who's Responsible Management Program
Who's Responsible

Individual Gulf state fisheries management agencies are responsible for monitoring and managing the blue crab resource in the Gulf, as blue crabs are almost exclusively harvested in state waters. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission helps coordinate monitoring and management among the states, gathering scientific data and organizing management measures to ensure they’re consistent through the species’ range.

Management Program

The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission’s 2001 Regional Management Plan for the Blue Crab Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico summarizes the individual Gulf States’ blue crab management programs. The general goal of the regional plan is to provide management strategies that maintain blue crab stocks and provide for the long-term stability of the fishery. Representatives from each Gulf state, the Commission, and other experts are currently updating the regional management plan.

Specific measures vary among the states, but they generally take a preventative approach for managing the population and the fishery, protecting the spawning population, habitat, and other species through size limits, gear restrictions and requirements, area closures, and a ban on the harvest of egg-bearing females. All states also have programs to remove discarded, lost, or abandoned crab traps and reduce their potential impacts.