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In Bid to Protect Stock, Maryland Seeks to Buy Back Small-Scale Crab Licenses

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

The state of Maryland is offering to buy back crabbing licenses from about half of the state's watermen in a bid to rebuild the Chesapeake Bay's beleaguered stock of blue crabs by reducing the number of people trying to catch them.

The offer was mailed Wednesday to 3,676 watermen who hold "Limited Crab Catcher" licenses, state officials said. These are the state's small-scale crabbers, licensed to set out 50 or fewer wire-mesh crab traps, or "pots." The other half of the state's watermen, with licenses to use more pots, were not included in the offer.

The state will use a "reverse auction," officials said: Each crabber will submit a bid, saying how much he or she would accept in exchange for giving up a license. Officials will accept the bids, starting with the lowest, until the money runs out or the price reaches a level the state deems too high.

Lynn Fegley, an official with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the auction aims to eliminate uncertainty about the state's crab harvests. She said that about 1,060 crabbers who hold the small-scale licenses have not worked on the water since 2004. Others catch relatively few.

But all of them might suddenly choose to catch more, she said. She said the state would like to buy back 2,000 licenses.

"You have a lot more [fishing] capacity out there than the resource can bear," said Douglas Lipton, a University of Maryland economist who helped design the buyback system. "This is a way, in the future, to have more of a handle on that."

Maryland and Virginia have put restrictions on the blue crab catch in the past two years, trying to stem a sharp drop in the population. Virginia officials are also planning a license buyback program, a state official said, but the details have not been worked out.


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