When Tom Cochran started crabbing in the Crystal River, he didn’t think he’d make the news.
But on Wednesday, Cochran caught a crab he considered noteworthy: one with a tag on it that read “Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.”
The concept of tagged crabs wasn’t totally new to him — his wife had told him to be on the lookout after reading an article about a program in Maryland.
That program began in the Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab — also known as the Crab Lab — at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. In an effort to provide more accurate recreational harvest estimates and as part of a larger effort to better understand the health and migration of the blue crab population, researchers released tagged crabs in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay between 2003 and 2016. Rewards were paid to both recreational and commercial crabbers who reported catching a tagged crab.
Robert Aguilar, a biologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said that if it’s really the same crab they tagged on July 17, 2015, it would be the one found farthest south.
“Over the course of the whole project we’ve tagged roughly 50,000 blue crabs,” Aguilar said. “The majority of those crabs are caught in the Chesapeake Bay, but some are caught in coastal bays and as far south as the end of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. We did have one crab that was reported in the Intracoastal Waterway off Flagler Beach. Until this one, that was the furthest one.
“The other possibility is that someone re-tagged a crab with this tag,” Aguilar continued. “But that would involve someone taking the tag, and the time and the effort to tag a crab and let it go somewhere else — which is much less than the likelihood of this crab traveling that far.”
Blue crabs shed their shells as they grow. Called molting, the process takes place throughout a male crab’s life, but only until a female reaches maturity.
“We tag the crabs once they’re legal size — adults, and a tag will fit on them,” Aguilar explained. “If this crab is a male and it’s all true, he hasn’t molted since we tagged him.”
Cochran had the same question.
“The tag’s been on for two and half years, and it’s never molted?” he asked. “This crab we caught yesterday was tagged in July 2015. Tag fully attached — that crab traveled over 2,000 miles.
“That’s the mystery — how the heck did this crab get down here?”