Chesapeake watermen don’t need to worry about a new round of blue crab regulations this year or next. Maryland and Virginia officials have agreed to a two-year moratorium on any new rules while representatives from both states try to decide how the Bay’s most valuable commercial species should be managed.
While several recent studies have indicated fishing pressure on the stock is at — or slightly beyond — sustainable levels, there is little agreement about the cause of the problem, or the severity of the situation.
As a result, Maryland Natural Re-sources Secretary John Griffin proposed what he called a two-year “cooling-off period” while a broad re-evaluation of the entire blue crab situation is undertaken.
The motion was also supported by Virginia officials at the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee meeting in January. The committee includes management agency officials, watermen, industry representatives and others from both states, and is coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which is made up of legislators from the three Bay states.
During the regulatory hiatus, officials hope to reach agreement on key scientific, social and economic issues concerning blue crab management. While it appears harvest pressure on blue crabs has increased in the past few years, there’s no agreement whether that has placed the crab population at risk.
In the next two years, two major efforts will shed new light and — officials hope — develop agreement on the issues.
First, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee this year is conducting a complete review of its estimate of the blue crab population. The committee’s first stock assessment, completed in 1997, trigged disagreements within the scientific community over its conclusion that the blue crab — at that time — was not overexploited.
Much of the reason for the disagreement stems from large uncertainties about the blue crab life cycle, such as how long they live. Scientists have also been at odds over how past blue crab population data — often collected in different places with different equipment for different purposes — should be interpreted. Depending on assumptions made, different scientists looking at the same information have reached vastly different conclusions in the past.
In this year’s stock assessment, scientists will be drawn from major research institutions and agencies around the Bay — rather than having all come mainly from the same place, as happened last time — to forge an agreement on these issues.
“Everyone is going to be involved in the assessment,” said Derek Orner, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, which is in charge of the stock assessment committee. “We really want to get a buy-in from both states.”
Some areas of uncertainty — though not resolved — may also be reduced, Orner said. Progress is being made on research to better estimate the age of crabs; an important factor in measuring the size, health and reproductive potential of the stock. In addition, Maryland this year will begin collecting information about the number of crabs taken as part of its recreational fishery which, unlike the commercial catch, has never been measured.
The second Baywide effort, being carried out by the Bi-State Blue Crab Commission, will examine social and economic issues related to the fishery.
Some scientists believe that too many small crabs are taken from the Bay. If they were left to grow larger, they say, the overall value of the harvest could increase. But setting catch targets based on maximizing the value of the catch — rather than fishing up to the maximum “safe” level as is the current management aim — could result in major changes in the regulation and number of crabs caught.
As a result, the bi-state panel wants to use the next two years to not only allow scientists to make a better estimate of the stock size, but also to bring together watermen, processors, economists, scientists and others to discuss management objectives.
To help support the consensus-building process, the panel is seeking $150,000 each from Virginia and Maryland to conduct new research. The Virginia General Assembly has incorporated the money into the state budget, and in Maryland, efforts are aimed at having funds put into the governor’s supplemental budget.
The payback, officials say, could be the first clear, unified vision for the future of the Bay’s blue crab fishery.
“We don’t want to end up having real big arguments like we did a couple of years ago,” said David Blazer, who helps coordinate the bi-state panel for the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “There may be some differences of opinions, but we’re definitely a lot closer as far as consensus than we were three or four years ago.”