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CHESAPEAKE BAY

Blue Crab 'Fishery Failure' Declared

Blue crab numbers have fallen by more than 70 percent since the '90s.
Blue crab numbers have fallen by more than 70 percent since the '90s. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The federal government yesterday declared a "commercial fishery failure" for the Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs, opening the door for funding to help the beleaguered crustaceans and the watermen who catch them.

That determination, made yesterday by U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, is the economic equivalent of a disaster declaration. It does not guarantee an influx of federal money, but officials in Maryland and Virginia were hopeful that it would convince Congress to provide some.

They have asked for more than $15 million to offset the economic impact of new limits on the bay's crab harvest, imposed this year in hopes of saving a population in severe decline.

"We'd almost given up on it," Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermens Association, said of the declaration. "It's very much needed, because with the cost of fuel and the cost of doing business and the stocks [of crabs] going down . . . it's shutting us down right now."

The crabs' numbers have fallen by more than 70 percent since the 1990s, scientists say, because of such factors as heavy fishing, pollution and the slow warming of bay waters. Harvests have declined along with them, squeezing crabbers who had already seen their other cash crop -- the Chesapeake oyster -- decimated.

In a release yesterday, the Commerce Department said the value of the bay's crab harvest, including hard- and soft-shell crabs, had declined 41 percent since the late 1990s.

This year, Maryland and Virginia reacted with their most drastic cuts to the crab harvest in years. They limited the number of female crabs that could be taken at certain times and banned Virginia's traditional "dredge" fishery, in which watermen scraped the crustaceans out of their winter burrows in the bay bottom.

Yesterday, officials in both states said they wanted to spend new federal funds to offset watermen's lost wages with new work. That might include surveying crab populations, dredging the silt off underwater oyster bars or building the infrastructure for large-scale oyster farming.

"It would be disappointing," said Frank W. Dawson III, an assistant secretary of natural resources in Maryland, "if we rebuilt the population [of crabs] and in the meantime the industry had disappeared."

In Virginia, a spokesman said the state wanted to give special attention to crabbers on Tangier Island, an isolated spot where watermen have few other job options.

"What are they going to do this winter if they can't crab-dredge?" said Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Waterman's Association. "Those boys are going to be hurting."


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