The federal government in September declared that soft shell and peeler blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay are "a commercial fishing failure," a determination that may make watermen and their communities eligible for economic assistance.

In making its determination, the U.S. Commerce Department said the harvest value of Maryland and Virginia soft shell and peeler crabs-both of which are sold as soft shell crabs-has declined 41 percent since the late 1990s.

"Watermen and their families in Maryland and Virginia who harvest blue crabs are being hit hard by this significant decline," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said. "This determination recognizes the importance of the blue crab harvest to the Chesapeake Bay community and the impact this decline is having on the regional economy."

The declaration makes watermen eligible for a portion of the $75 million set aside nationwide for fishery disaster assistance in legislation that cleared the House and Senate in September.

According to the office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D- MD, preliminary economic impacts on watermen, harvesters and the processing industry are estimated at $20 million for Maryland and Virginia over the next three years.

"This is about lives and livelihoods in a struggling economy," Mikulski said.

Federal funds would be used to provide alternative economic opportunities for watermen and the processing industry while state regulators work with the industry to rebuild stocks and restructure the fishery. Some of the money is expected to be used to pay watermen to participate in projects aimed at improving habitat in the Bay.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine requested the federal disaster designation to reduce the economic impact of a 34 percent reduction in the catch of female crabs, which both states approved earlier this year. The restriction was aimed at helping the crab population rebound from what fishery managers fear are dangerously low numbers.

"Maryland's blue crab and the traditional fishing industry that it supports face difficult times," O'Malley said in a statement. "The federal funding accompanying the disaster designation will help to preserve the infrastructure of Maryland's hallmark blue crab fishery, and ensure an active fishery for the future."

Blue crabs are harvested at three stages in their life cycle-as hard shell crabs, peeler crabs (just prior to molting), and soft shell crabs (immediately after the molt).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce, analyzed economic and biological information provided by the two states and NOAA scientists and economists to reach its conclusions.

The determination is based principally on the soft shell and peeler crabs because they showed the most dramatic decline over the last several years," said NOAA spokesman Anson Franklin.

While not all watermen harvest soft shell and peeler crabs, Franklin said the determination establishes the scientific basis for the declaration. "It's up to Congress to determine how to provide the assistance, he said."

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said the declaration "makes available significant resources to help maintain our commercial fishing infrastructure on the Chesapeake Bay while working to bolster the blue crab population"

Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, R-VA, who has been pushing for more federal action on the Bay, said he was pleased by the action but hopes it draws more attention to the Bay's problems.

"I hope this is another one of those canary in the coal mine indicators that we're really having some challenges," Wittman said. "I'm hoping this brings that to light. We absolutely need to increase by orders of magnitude our efforts to clean up the Bay."