The governors of Maryland and Virginia announced in May that they are seeking federal disaster assistance for watermen who are expected to suffer financially because of limits on blue crab harvests in the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine have sent letters to U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez seeking the Fishery Resource Disaster designation. This designation would allow Congress to appropriate economic assistance for hard-hit watermen.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, said $15 million is being sought to put watermen to work on projects to restore the Bay. She said the idea is to spread the money out over a three-year period to help keep watermen working on habitat restoration and conservation.

Mikulski said at a news conference with O'Malley, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, and other officials that female crabs require "a breather" to help boost their numbers.

"While we are going to take a three-year breather on the fishing of female crabs, we needed to make sure that our watermen continue to work," Mikulski said.

Maryland and Virginia plan to reduce the female crab harvest by 34 percent until winter surveys indicate the crab population has rebounded.

Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said watermen engaged in similar conservation and restoration work during the striped bass moratorium between 1984 and 1989.

"They paid watermen to take the scientists out and do research, and we've got the boats and equipment," Simns said. "Our watermen don't want a handout. They want to work for the money."

Mikulski said Maryland officials are "very optimistic" the federal government will grant the emergency declaration because there is precedent for declaring a disaster where there has been a regulatory impact on livelihoods.

"It's been used in other parts of the country when fisheries have been devastated for a variety of reasons, and this enables them to receive some type of help to restore the very habitat for them to continue working as they've done for hundreds of years here," Mikulski said.

O'Malley pointed out that the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population has declined by about 70 percent in the last 15 years. He said the new regulations were "absolutely necessary in order to bring the blue crab back." If the decline continues, O'Malley said, "the entire crab population would simply implode."

In the letter to Gutierrez, O'Malley wrote that emergency regulation measures "will have severe impacts in parts of our state that depend heavily on economic activity derived from commercial fishing and related industries."

"In particular, management actions necessary to significantly constrain the harvest of mature female crabs will disproportionately affect lower Eastern Shore communities with a concentration of fishermen and processing plants," O'Malley wrote.