The federal government will spend up to $20 million in Virginia and Maryland to aid crabbers affected by the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab fishery failure, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced in November.

The money, which had been sought by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, will be evenly split between the two states.

Blue crab populations have hovered near historic lows for most of the last decade, with little sign of recovery. Earlier this year, Kaine and O'Malley jointly proposed a 34 percent reduction in the harvest of female crabs in an attempt to boost the number of spawning females.

The cut was a major blow to watermen, and members of the Maryland and Virginia congressional delegation called upon Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to declare the crab fishery a disaster-a move that would clear the way for federal financial aid.

Gutierrez made the disaster declaration in September, based on the particularly poor status of the of the peeler and soft crab fishery, but the amount of the aid was not immediately announced. The Commerce Department oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The states must submit plans to the NMFS outlining how the funds will be spent, although both O'Malley and Kaine have indicated that they want the money to be used to employ watermen in projects that rebuild habitat; remove abandoned crab pots and other derelict gear; or monitor fisheries. Some funds may also be used to train watermen to diversify into other areas, such as aquaculture.

"Watermen and their families have been hard hit by a 41 percent decline in the soft shell and peeler crab fishery since the late 1990s," said Jim Balsiger, acting NOAA assistant administrator for the fisheries service. "We're pleased the governors said they would like to use federal aid to restore important blue crab habitat and to create more diverse economic opportunities for watermen, possibly in aquaculture.

"We applaud their idea to use some aid to employ crab fishermen to retrieve lost or abandoned crab pots that continue to capture fish and crabs, doing long-term damage to the fishery," he added.