The Virginia Board of Health, bowing to pleas from the financially ailing state seafood industry, lifted today most of its five-year-old ban on commercial fishing in the James River despite questions about the safety of eating fish from the Kepone-contaminated waters.

At the behest of watermen and an influential state legislator who appeared on their behalf at a hearing today, the board also dropped most of its ban on commercial fishing for male crabs, although the state's own monitoring indicates that some of the crabs are contaminated with at least twice as much of the toxic pesticide as federal safety limits allow during certain months.

After the board's unanimous action, one of the state's top health officials said he would still advise pregnant women and small children not to eat fish from the newly opened areas.

"If I was pregnant, I would avoid it," said Robert Stroube, state director of health protection and environmental management. For other persons, Stroube said, occasional eating of James River fish was "an acceptable risk," although he said he would avoid consumption "on a regular basis."

The watermen's case was argued by their lawyer, Newport News Del. Theodore Morrison, who told the board that maintaining any portion of the ban was "silliness."

"I think this whole thing has become a joke to a lot of people," said Morrison. "Everybody's violating it and I say God bless them."

Earlier this year, when a Newport News judge temporarily lifted the commercial fishing ban, Gov. John N. Dalton immediately restored it by executive order after state health officials warned consumers against eating any of the fish. Those same officials contended today that reductions in Kepone levels in most fish monitored by the state over the last two years made much of the ban unnecessary.

Federal researchers believe Kepone is a possible carcinogen because it has caused liver cancer in laboratory animals, although they say the pesticide's long-term health effects on humans is unclear. Many in the fishing and chemical industries, and some state officials, have argued that federal safety levels are far to stringent and that Kepone has proved less of a health threat than originally feared.

"We're the only real victims of Kepone," said Roy Insley, general manager of the Virginia Working Watermen Association. "There's no visible evidence that anyone's been hurt by Kepone except our people, who are out of work."

The board, which two months ago lifted the ban on most recreational fishing, voted to allow commercial fishing of most fin fish for the first six months of the year, the time when monitoring has shown Kepone levels at their lowest. Some fish -- catfish, shad and herring -- may be caught all year round.

State health officials had sought to limit fishing for male crabs to six months also because some male crabs had shown Kepone levels anywhere from 0.5 to 1.3 parts per million (ppm). The federal safety limit on crabs is 0.4 ppm. But the board voted to allow crabbing for nine months a year after watermen pleaded for the additional three months.

There were no spokesmen for environmentalist groups at today's hearing and no one argued against lifting the ban.

The Kepone ban has been in effect since December 1975, when federal researchers found evidence that fish from the river had dangerously high Kepone concentrations. It was later proved in court that two companies had been illegally discharging the highly toxic pesticide into the river for years from plants located just south of Richmond in the small city of Hopewell.

About 70 chemical workers suffered nerve damage and other short-term effects from handling the pesticide. Researchers say it is not yet known whether any suffered long-term effects.

The watermen said today the ban had a devastating impact on their industry, forcing half their members out of work. "It was a terrible injustice," said Insley.

They were supported by Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner James Douglas, who said he believed state health officials were "a bit slow" in petitioning the federal government to ease its Kepone safety levels. Douglas added that he thought the Environmental Protection Agency would be slow in adjusting the safety standard even though evidence suggested low-level doses of the pesticide were not harmful.

"Talking to the federal bureaucracy is like talking to a cardboard box," said Douglas. "You can't see its ears or its mouth, and when you want to kick it you don't know where."

An EPA spokesman defended the agency's safety level for Kepone, saying it was necessary to protect public health. But the spokesman added that the agency was reviewing the level and plans to announce its findings early next year.