Maryland and Virginia are planning to phase in new regulations aimed at reducing harvest pressure on blue crabs over the next three years, which they hope will lead to a larger, and healthier, crab population in the future.

The Bi-State Blue Crab Committee in December adopted a new fishing mortality target intended to give more crabs — about 20 percent of the population’s spawning potential — a chance to reproduce each year.

The target is more restrictive than a catch “threshold” adopted by the panel only three months before. That number is considered the maximum safe fishing level and would 10 percent of the spawning potential.

The stricter target is intended to add a margin of safety to fishery management decisions. Had the target been in effect in recent years, it would have reduced the Baywide crab harvest by 15 percent.

But scientists say as more crabs survive and spawn, it should increase the population — and therefore the actual number of blue crabs that watermen and recreational crabbers may eventually catch.

Although the recommendation is only advisory, it carries significant weight because the committee includes top fishery managers from each state, lawmakers, watermen, seafood processors, environmentalists and others.

The recommendation caps nearly three years of work by the committee, which was established by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a panel that represents the legislatures of the Bay states, to coordinate Baywide crab management.

The blue crab is the Bay’s most valuable commercial species, but catches have been low during most of the 1990s, and 2000 landings are expected to be among the lowest on record.

The adoption of the threshold and the target mark the first-ever Baywide consensus on capping the crab catch. Historically, the catch has been managed independently by Virginia, Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

“It is the right direction to go,” said Del. John Wood, D-MD, co-chair of the committee. “Something had to happen. We need to continue working together with the three jurisdictions. If we don’t, God help us, because this is a giant problem.”

Concern about the health of the blue crab stock has waxed and waned several times in the past century. The population naturally fluctuates because survival of spawned larvae is highly dependent on environmental conditions outside the Bay.

Female crabs migrate toward the mouth of the Bay in late summer to spawn. Each can produce millions of larvae, which swim in coastal waters for several months before returning to the Bay. Climatic conditions along that coast during that time largely determine the number of larvae that return to the Chesapeake and are “recruited” into the population.

Coastal environmental conditions are so important that some fisheries experts in the past questioned whether fishing pressure affected the population at all.

Recently, though, a consensus has emerged among scientists that some number of crabs needs to protected to maintain the population. Otherwise, if a smaller-than-normal spawning population combined with poor larvae survival conditions, it could result in a population crash from which it could take the crab stock years to recover.

“When the population is down to a very low level, that is when the size of the spawning stock matters quite a bit,” Rom Lipcius, a crab researcher from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, told the committee. Lipcius noted that the crab population has remained at a low level since 1994 without a rebound, suggesting that “we may be somewhere close” to the danger point.

Besides offering a safety margin, scientists have suggested the more restrictive target could produce several benefits. A larger spawning population could provide more stability in the year-to-year crab population. And, it would allow the crabs that survive to grow older — and bigger. That could be good news for watermen as larger crabs are more valuable than smaller ones.

During a series of hearings last fall, most watermen expressed concern about additional regulations. But with worries mounting about the crabs, watermen representatives and seafood processors on the committee agreed to the action, although Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, urged that agencies “not try to achieve it in one year.”

The committee’s plan calls for restrictions to be phased in over three years, beginning this year. The committee called for equitable reductions across jurisdictional boundaries and in various parts of the fishery, including both recreational and commercial sectors.

The committee’s plan also calls for further economic studies to determine potential alternative long-term management options that would both protect the crab as well as the income of watermen and others who depend on the species.

The plan also calls for the continued study of other factors affecting blue crabs, such as predation by striped bass and other fish, and water quality that degrades habitats such as underwater grass beds — both of which were key concerns to watermen.

The recommendations will be formally presented to the Chesapeake Bay Commission in January, after which the states will begin the task of figuring out what new restrictions are needed to reduce harvest pressure.

To ensure progress is maintained, the committee is expected to remain in operation for four more years. Del. Robert Bloxom, R-VA, co-chair of the committee, said the cooperation between the states that has been forged by the committee was “extraordinary.”

“I’m quite impressed with the progress we’ve made over the years to get to this point,” he said. “It’s important to continue that progress from this point on. There is no more important resource in our Bay than crabs.”

the New Threshhold and Target Will Mean

The “threshold” approved by the Bi-State Blue Crab Committee calls for protecting the equivalent of 10 percent of the spawning potential (reproductive-age females).

The target calls for protecting the equivalent of 20 percent of the spawning potential (reproductive-age females).

Here’s what that means for the entire crab population in the Bay.

  • Under the threshold, total crab mortality is 75 percent a year (73 percent of that is from fishing, and 27 percent is natural mortality).
  • Under current fishing pressure, total crab mortality is 72 percent (about 71 percent of that is from fishing and 29 percent from natural mortality).
  • Under the target, total crab mortality would be about 66 percent, (65 percent from fishing, and 35 percent from natural mortality).
  • Put another way, under the threshold, 54 percent of all crabs would be removed by fishing, while only 43 percent would be removed by fishing under the target. About 51 percent are removed now.