July blue crab catch is worst on record for Chesapeake Bay

Bay watermen endured their worst July blue crab harvest on record and the poor catch is prompting a review of the Bay’s leading commercial crustacean.

“It’s pathetic. We haven’t had any crabs in July and August,” Russell Dize, 57, a Tilghman Island crab buyer, told The (Baltimore) Sun. “It’s been the worst season I’ve seen in 35 years.”

The poor July followed a good spring catch, so officials said it was too soon to decide whether further harvesting restrictions are needed to protect the crab. But state Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin summoned a key advisory panel to discuss the matter in September, one month earlier than planned. “We don’t want to overreact or underreact,” he told The Washington Post.

The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee — composed of fishery industry representatives, scientists, state officials and lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia — will help policymakers decide whether the crab is in trouble, he said. The committee is coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents the legislatures of the three Bay states.

Scientists this spring said the percentage of the Bay’s crab stock harvested each year is approaching levels that could endanger its ability to sustain itself. Through July, Maryland watermen have pulled 14.1 million pounds of blue crabs from their traps, compared with an average of 17.8 million pounds for that period of time.

According to preliminary state statistics, Maryland watermen pulled in 4.6 million pounds of blue crabs in July. That’s a little more than half the average July catch of 8.8 million pounds, and the lowest July total since the state began keeping monthly records in 1981.

“There’s growing evidence and growing concern that we’re hitting our heads on the ceiling” by catching as many crabs as the Bay can produce, Griffin said.

Virginia officials said they had no figures yet for July’s harvest in their portion of the Chesapeake. Like their Maryland counterparts, they reported robust spring harvests.

In both states, July is a prime crabbing month. And the scarcity of crabs seems to be continuing in August, said William Goldsborough, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a private advocacy group. “It’s not a red flag, necessarily,” Goldsborough said. “But it’s of concern.”

With the demise of the oyster and reductions in some fish species, watermen are relying increasingly on crabs as their major source of income, fishing them hard from spring to fall.

This year, the low supply has kept prices at levels usually seen only early in the season. Crabs were going for $65 to $90 a bushel in mid-August at wholesale markets, while a typical August price would be $35 a bushel, said Calvert County waterman Kenny Keen.

VA judge rejects lawsuit challenging reservoir permit

A Virginia judge threw out a lawsuit seeking to overturn the State Water Control Board’s approval of a reservoir that the city of Newport News wants to build in King William County.

Circuit Judge Robert Curran ruled Aug. 7 that King and Queen County, the Mattaponi Indian tribe and various environmental groups lack legal standing to challenge the board’s decision.

He also ruled that his court is not the proper place to deal with the tribe’s claim that the state permit would violate a 321-year-old peace treaty and federal civil rights laws.

But Curran said the city of Newport News can ask his court to order changes in the state permit. Newport News believes some last-minute restrictions on the permit would greatly diminish the amount of water it could draw from the reservoir.

“We’re pleased that we will be able to have a forum to argue that the conditions that we were troubled with need to be revisited by the Water Control Board,” said Dave Morris, reservoir project manager for Newport News Waterworks.

The 1,526-acre reservoir would draw water from the Mattaponi River and would provide up to 23 million gallons of drinking water to the peninsula each day.

“We are disappointed in the outcome, and we’re also disappointed that the judge did not provide any reasoning for his decision,” said Jeffrey Nelson, an attorney with the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center, which represents the tribe. The attorneys will meet with the tribal council to discuss appealing Curran’s decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, Nelson said.

Lawyers for the environmental organizations, including the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also will consult their clients before deciding whether to appeal, said Kay Slaughter, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville.

Even if the state permit stands, the groups will continue to try to convince the Army Corps of Engineers not to issue a federal permit for the reservoir.

The tribe believes the reservoir would violate a 1677 peace treaty between English colonists and various Indian tribes in eastern Virginia, which created a permanent three-mile buffer around the tribe’s reservation in King William, the tribe’s lawyers argued. A portion of the reservoir and the pumping station that would draw water from the Mattaponi River would be located within that three-mile buffer.

Asian whelk that eats shellfish found in Virginia

Two Asian “veined rapa whelks,” which could pose a threat to shellfish harvests, have been found for the first time in Virginia waters, scientists said.

They were dredged up in the lower James River near the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel in June. It is the first time the predatory, shellfish-eating cousin of the conch has been found in U.S. waters, experts said.

Veined rapa whelks move like snails and eat shellfish using a radula, a chain-like structure with rows of teeth that wear away the shell with a rasping motion.

Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said the whelks could pose a threat to oysters and clams if they become established here and multiply. Scientists planned a concerted effort in late August to search for more of the Asian whelks and are asking commercial fishermen to look out for them.

They believe the two whelks arrived here from Asia in the ballast hold of a cargo ship several years ago.

Veined rapa whelks are native to the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, between Japan and mainland Asia. They were accidentally introduced into the Black Sea in the 1940s and have since spread into the Adriatic and Aegean seas.

The whelks have caused problems for Black Sea fishermen, particularly those who catch mussels, said Gene Burreson, VIMS director of research.

Conchs also eat shellfish, but their Asian counterpart would be a more formidable predator, said Roger Mann, a shellfish biologist at VIMS. They spread out faster than native species and are apparently not susceptible to the periodic floods of fresh water that keep the native population in check in the Chesapeake Bay, Mann said.

Worth noting:

Pelican rebound: The first pelicans known to have been born in Maryland’s portion of the Bay were hatched this spring in Tangier Sound. The birds normally restrict themselves to breeding grounds in Florida and other states along the Gulf of Mexico, and the Carolinas. But this year 15 nesting pairs produced about a dozen chicks. The fact pelicans nest in the Bay is proof that the Chesapeake’s health is improving, scientists said. “It’s good news for the Bay that they’re here,” said Dave Brinker, a scientist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “A healthy environment has a diverse mix of species in it. The more kinds of water birds there are here, the better off the Bay is.”

Green power: Environmentally minded electrical customers will be able to look for a sort of green Good Housekeeping seal of approval when Pennsylvania throws open the $10 billion electricity market to competition next year. Utilities can market with the “Green-e” logo, if they can show that at least 50 percent of their supply comes from renewable resources such as sun, water and wind. “The Green-e logo gives customers the confidence of knowing that their electricity protects their health as well as their wallets,” said Jan Hamrin, executive director of the California-based Center for Resource Solutions, which administers the Green-e program.

Governors’ choice: Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening was selected to serve as chair of the National Governors’ Association Committee on Natural Resources. The appointment by the bipartisan organization is effective immediately. “I look forward to working with my fellow committee members and all of the nation’s governors to tackle tough and complex issues such as coastal zone management; ensuring compliance with the Clean Air Act; building state and federal partnerships for environmental protection; and electricity restructuring. Maryland has been recognized as a national leader for our policies on Smart Growth and pfiesteria. I hope to be able to apply what we have done here in Maryland at the national level through the NGA.”

Virginia polluters must pay up: Companies that pollute Virginia waterways will no longer be able to spend money on environmental projects in lieu of some fines, according to a new state environmental policy announced by Department of Environmental Quality Director Dennis Treacy. Under the new policy, the DEQ would determine a penalty, and the polluter would pay at least 25 percent of a fine with the rest being used for environmental restoration projects. Another new provision specifies that projects must be built near the point of the original violation. Treacy said that he wants Virginia’s Supplemental Environmental Project program, which was created by the state legislature last year, to be used more consistently across the state.