To improve blue crab management, a special bi-state panel is being created by the Chesapeake Bay Commission so representatives from Virginia and Maryland can develop more comprehensive strategies for the Bay's most valuable fishery.
The commission, a tri-state legislative advisory panel, formed the special committee at its January meeting to help smooth conflicts that often arise as the two states strive to manage a single species.
The commission -- which along with the governors, District of Columbia mayor and EPA administrator is a member of the policy-making Chesapeake Executive Council -- has a long history of involvement with fisheries issues. It was viewed by members as a logical forum to deal with the sensitive blue crab issue because its membership represents both the administrative and legislative branches of state governments.
Recommendations from the special committee may help coordinate the way two states -- and the separate Potomac River Fisheries Commission -- manage the crab, as well as addressing issues for the Baywide Blue Crab Management Plan being developed by the Bay Program.
"We have a unique opportunity here to collaborate over the short term that might have some advantages for both states," said John Griffin, Maryland's natural resources secretary and a member of the commission, which is made up of lawmakers and agency heads from the three Bay states.
The new committee will have up to 25 members including lawmakers, industry representatives, watermen, recreational crabbers and fisheries officials from Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River. It will meet at least twice this year, corresponding with commission meetings in the spring and fall. A panel of scientists and economists will provide technical information to the committee.
The intent is not to develop identical regulations in the two states -- blue crab population dynamics dictate that fishermen in the two states will target different segments of the populations at different times of the year -- but to get consistent policies that will prevent any one segment of the crab population from being overly targeted.
As it stands now, regulations proposed in each state often draw fire if they are seen -- sometimes erroneously -- as putting people in one state at a disadvantage to those in the neighboring jurisdiction.
"We've got to stop pointing fingers back and forth," said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If you get all those people around one table, it will be easier to resolve misunderstandings between the states which often hamper management efforts."
The formation of the committee comes at a time when both states are considering new regulations to cap fishing pressure on the crab. Virginia planned public hearings on additional blue crab regulations in January.
Maryland imposed "emergency" restrictions last fall which reduced the female crab catch 33 percent below the previous year's level. The state is now reviewing proposals for permanent regulations that would go into effect this spring.
Recent efforts in the two states have been aimed at protecting female crabs. Scientists have expressed concern that too many females are being taken before they get a chance to reproduce, raising threats to the population.
While crabs live throughout the Bay during different parts of their life cycle, the two states often have greatly differing regulations about catch limits, the types of equipment that can be used, and where and when crabbing can take place. Virginia requires a recreational license, Maryland does not.
"You have one blue crab population Baywide and two jurisdictions," Goldsborough said. "It makes no sense for them to go about management independent of one another."
Still, Griffin said, the states "seem to be moving toward common ground" with regulations. Last year, for example, Maryland began closing the commercial fishery one day a week, something Virginia had been doing; both states have enacted measures to limit the number of commercial watermen fishing for blue crabs; both states are requiring "cull rings" in pots to allow immature crabs to escape; among other measures.
But, Griffin said, "we are getting just up to our kneecaps" in areas where the states can cooperate.