, 2015

Watermen suggest new plan to strengthen
blue crab stocks and preserve the industry

by Larry Chowning

NEWPORT NEWS—Recent Chesapeake Bay blue crab population figures show crabs are at the same low levels as in 2008 when the federal government declared the situation a “commercial fishery failure.”

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According to the latest blue crab winter dredge survey, the total crab population is among the lowest levels since 1990, and the number of mature female crabs fell one million short of the “bare minimum” scientists say is needed to sustain the population. This prompted the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) in June to cut the harvest limit of commercial crabbers by 10%.

The bay’s blue crab fishery is substantial. It generates nearly $30 million in annual revenues. The Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel, a volunteer-led group of commercial watermen, recently presented a new approach to the problem.

“Virginia needs a new approach if we want to save the fishery from the point of no return,” said Bill Mullis, chairman of the Virginia Blue Crab Industry Panel. “In the face of numerous management actions over the past two decades, we call upon VMRC to consider these innovative recommendations. It’s time for Virginia to protect blue crabs and our watermen—before it is too late.”

The watermen’s group is requesting that VMRC establish an annual individual harvest limit for each waterman, which would encourage them to fish when the profit margin is the greatest and not for less-expensive young and female crabs that are important for strengthening the crab population.

VMRC currently establishes a statewide commercial limit on the catch. This means when the overall limit is caught, the fishery shuts down. The group has requested that VMRC establish a pilot program that assigns individual harvest limits to watermen instead of restricting season, daily catches or gear.

The panel also recommends: more accountability by modernizing the online harvest reporting system and verifying catches to get more timely and accurate data; better science about crab mortality, predators and recreational crab harvests; and an analysis of the costs and benefits of existing and potential future blue crab regulations to ensure the measures are economically sound.

“We need more than Band-Aid fixes,” said Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Waterman’s Association and a member of the panel. “We need credible, responsible long-term solutions, and that is what our panel is focused on.”

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