Va. Extends Blue Crab Harvest Restrictions
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Virginia officials voted unanimously yesterday to continue emergency restrictions on blue crab harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay for at least another year in an effort to rebuild the population. The federal government last year declared the crab fishery a disaster.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted to continue a 15 percent reduction in crab pots from 2007 levels. And members again prohibited dredging for hibernating crabs during winter. The commission banned winter dredging for the first time last year, when scientists became concerned that the declining number of blue crabs heralded a population collapse.
"Sustaining a viable population is difficult if you're allowing the harvest of hibernating pregnant female crabs," said commission spokesman John Bull. "We think banning dredging had a significant biological impact on the crab population moving in the right direction."
The number of spawning-age blue crabs in the bay dropped 70 percent, from an estimated 450 million in 1991 to about 120 million last year, commission officials said. After a year of harvest limits, the spawning-age population of blue crabs has rebounded 43 percent, to about 223 million.
Because of the upswing, the commission also voted to loosen some restrictions imposed last year. The blue crab season will end Nov. 21, which is 10 days earlier than usual but a month later than last year, when the season ended Oct. 27. The commission also lifted the ban on five-crab-pot recreational licenses.
"The commissioners decided that the scientific data warranted easing off the throttle a bit," Bull said. "The recreational crab pot fishery in Virginia is very small. . . . In the grand scheme of things, it's not going to have a big impact, and we did say that when the crab population hit 200 million, we would reinstate them."
Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Waterman's Association, said yesterday's vote came as no surprise. He and other watermen had indicated to commission staff "that this was something that we could live with." But he disagreed that last year's regulations were responsible for the increase in the blue crab population, which can swing wildly from year to year. The count, he said, "has more to do with Mother Nature."
Pollution, overharvesting and habitat destruction have contributed to the decline in the blue crab population, scientists say. They are pushing to continue harvest restrictions until the crab population has grown for at least three years.
Continued harvest restrictions are necessary, conservationists said. "One year's increase in data does not mean necessarily that we're on the road to certain recovery," said Chris Moore of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We need to see sustained increases."