Nearshore Communities and Shoreline Development


Temporal Variation in Juvenile Blue Crab Mortality: Nearshore Shallows and Cannibalism in Chesapeake Bay

Bulletin of Marine Science
Volume 57, No. 3, Pages 884 - 901, 1995

Anson Hines and Gregory Ruiz

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, PO Box 28, Edgewater, MD 21037, USA

Adult abundance is determined by both recruitment and survival of juveniles. Blue crabs exhibit a distinct population size-structure reflecting seasonal cycles of recruitment and growth in the Rhode River, a subesturary lacking submerged vegetation in central Chesapeake Bay. Seasonally shifting modes in the size-structure, corresponding to juvenile, prepubertal and mature crabs, allowed trawl catches to be partitioned into 0+ and 1+ year classes of the crabs' 2-3 year life span. Fluctuations in the annual abundance of the year classes during 1988-1993 indicated that abundance of 0+ juveniles was not a good predictor of 1+ year class abundance. We used tethering techniques to assess sources of, and temporal variation in, juvenile blue crab mortality as a function of water depth in the nearshore shallows of the subestuary. Laboratory experiments and analysis of remains of crabs tethered in the field indicated that cannibalism by large blue crabs was the source of 75-97% of mortality of juveniles. Crabs 30-50mm CW suffered significantly higher mortality than 50-70 mm crabs. Mortality of tethered juveniles was significantly lower in shallow (15 cm) than deep (>70 cm) water. Mortality rates did not differ between day and night periods. Mortality of tethered crabs was high (40 - 90% per day) and exhibited significant seasonal and annual variation from 1989-1993; and water depth showed significant interaction effects with these components of temporal variability. Multiple regression analysis indicated that water temperature, abundance of 1+ year-class crabs in deep-water trawls, and abundance of 0+ year-class crabs in nearshore seines accounted for 82% of the annual variation in mortality of juveniles tethered at medium (40 cm) depth. Together, these results emphasize the importance of the nearshore shallows and body size as crucial refuges for juvenile blue crabs encountering intense, but temporally variable cannibalism by large crabs. Juvenile mortality may be an important variable regulating population dynamics of blue crabs.