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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Governors call for deep cuts to blue crab harvest

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine says the crab is in peril but feels a reduced harvest will last only two or three years.

By Patrick Lynch

COLONIAL BEACH - The governors of Virginia and Maryland stood together on the banks of the Potomac River Tuesday and demanded the two states enforce a deep cut to the Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest to pull the species out of its stagnated depths.

Making a rare step into the nuts and bolts of commercial fishing regulations, the governors called for a 34 percent bay wide reduction in this year's female blue crab harvest. The blue crab has been overfished eight of the past 11 years, and the governors learned on Tuesday that in 2007 the species was more heavily targeted than usual — every six out of 10 adult crabs were plucked from the Chesapeake during the year, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"The blue crab is in peril," Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said. "We sit today at the bottom of a very precipitous fall."

Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley acknowledged the cut will cause financial pain to watermen in the Chesapeake's most lucrative fishery. But they said the crab industry will suffer more if the crabs aren't given a chance to recover from near historic low numbers.

"We're at a point on the crab harvest that the price of inaction is greater than the price of action," Kaine said. "We do not want to wake up five to 10 years from now and realize we lost this very important part of who we are."

Kaine and O'Malley's joint appearance marked what some called a historic moment. The states have worked together before on bay issues, but rarely with this much attention focused so urgently on one of the icons of the Chesapeake.
With oysters barely surviving, blue crabs have been the primary target for watermen in both states who still seek to make a living solely on the water.

The hardy crab has sustained itself through years of overfishing and severe degradation of the bay's water quality and prime crab habitat.

But in the past decade the blue crab has shown no signs of its typical, vital resurgence after a period of decline.

The population has always gone up and down in cycles, but the cycle has seemed to stop — at the bottom.

The governors' call for reducing the female crab harvest by a third is also a dramatic step for two states that have, throughout the decline of the bay's quality and fisheries, taken a measured approach to save the seafood industry and the environment.

Kaine and O'Malley said the stricter regulations should only be short-term measures. The blue crab is a highly fecund species with a short life-span that can reproduce rapidly in the right conditions. As the stock rebounds, so should the industry, Kaine said.

"The industry can rebound," he said. "When positive steps are taken, this is a very resilient species."

The governors made their remarks after hearing the latest results from the annual winter survey of the Chesapeake's blue crab population. The study found about 120 million adult crabs — a number scientists say should be 200 million at a minimum — and 280 million crabs of all ages.

Biologists say no more than 46 percent of the bay's crabs should be harvested each year. But in 2007, 60 percent were caught, even though there were fewer watermen as they continue to leave the water for steadier jobs.

Lynn Fegley, crab biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said it is important to reduce the number of females caught because they are more heavily fished and because they are more important to the stock's ability to reproduce.

"More moms, more babies," Fegley said.

Kaine said that if the regulations work the way they should, the crab stock could rebound to healthier levels in two to three years.

The governors did not lay out policy options to achieve their goal, but said they would leave those decisions to the state's regulatory bodies. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has already passed a spate of new measures this year, but will take more significant steps next Tuesday.

Jack Travelstead, VMRC deputy commissioner, pointed to a handful of new regulations that together could add up to part of a 34 percent cut in females caught.

The option to eliminate winter dredging — where fishermen drag the bottom to catch hibernating, pregnant females — would cut about 17 percent of the female harvest, he said. Closing the hard and peeler pot fisheries early, around Oct. 27, would cut about 6 percent. New regulations on cull rings and size limits that the VMRC already passed will comprise an 11 percent reduction, he said.

Depending on what the VMRC board decides, any difference toward the goal could be made up by closing the season on females earlier in October, Travelstead said.

"This is pretty severe," said Ken Smith, vice president of the Virginia Waterman's Association.

Smith said the new restrictions could force a few more watermen off the water.

"There's going to be some of that," he said. "The way crabbing's going anyways, you're going to see crabbers fall every year."

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