CLIMATE-CRABS

A Maryland blue crab. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

Beleaguered blue crabs are poised to start living their best lives in the warming waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Over the years leading to 2100, a study says, the bay will probably experience a blue crab baby boom as climate change shaves weeks of the winter season. Bay crabs ride out winter by burrowing in mud when the cold sets in, but juvenile crabs are more prone to starve as the season wears on because they eat less than adults do.

But by the turn of the century, winters will decrease from an average of 117 days to about 90, based on the study's conservative estimate of temperature changes. A liberal estimate cut the season by half, to fewer than 60 days. The study's analysis relied on 100 years of reported temperatures from gauges near the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies in Cambridge, Maryland.

As a result, Maryland's waters are expected to become as warm as those in Newport News and possibly Morehead City, North Carolina, where blue crabs don't need to burrow during winter. About 75% of juvenile crabs currently survive the bay's frigid winter waters. If the study's findings are accurate, that number will grow to 100%, said Hillary L. Glandon, a researcher and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, one of the three authors.

The study published Thursday in PLOS One has major implications for management of the bay's wavering blue crab population, which supports a fishery worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Fishery managers in Maryland and Virginia have each placed moratoriums on commercial crabbing to protect the animal in the hopes of boosting their struggling population.