Faced with continued worries about the health of the Bay’s most valuable fishery, Maryland and Virginia have opted to accelerate curbs on blue crab harvests.

The two states had agreed late in 2000 to phase in a 15 percent reduction in harvest pressure over a three- year period, and both last year implemented the first 5 percent cut toward that goal.

But rather than continue on that pace, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources approved new regulations in March that will put the full 15 percent reduction into force this year.

“As a result of these actions, Maryland will reach the goal one year early, and we do not expect to implement additional regulations for 2003,” said state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Chuck Fox.

In late February, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission approved new actions that would achieve an 11 percent reduction. The commission was expected to take further action at the end of April that would bring the total reduction to more than 14 percent.

“If we do more than 10 percent this year, we’ll have to do less next year,” said Robert O’Reilly, a biologist with the VMRC. “And I think the end result is that everyone, the commission and the industry, will feel a little bit better about it next year.”

Officials in both states said part of the reason for speeding regulations was to reduce uncertainty for watermen, who have been facing changing rules each year. In addition, the quicker phase-in of regulations offers an added margin of safety for the blue crab stock. Last year, surveys continued to suggest that several key indicators of stock health were at, or near, all-time lows.

Because of mounting concern over the state of the crab population, the Bi-State Blue Crab Committee, created by the Chesapeake Bay Commission to help coordinate Baywide management, called for the 15 percent reduction reduction in fishing effort because it would ultimately result in doubling the crab spawning stock, a measure of reproducing females.

Scientists say that will result in a larger, more stable crab population which, in turn, means the crab catch will eventually increase, even as fishing pressure is reduced.

Maryland plans, among other actions, to increase the minimum size for male crabs from 5 to 5.25 inches, as well as set new minimum sizes for peeler and soft crabs.

The VMRC, meanwhile, will achieve an 11 percent reduction by imposing a 3-inch size limit on “peeler” crabs and establishing an eight-hour workday.

In addition, the commission is considering extending a blue crab sanctuary, which now exists in water more than 35 feet deep, into water that is only 30 feet deep. It is also considering a 1-week closure of the sponge crab (egg-bearing females) season in July, or actions that would result in an equivalent reduction, such as an 8-bushel per boat sponge crab limit for July. Those actions would bring Virginia’s reduction to more than 14 percent.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission established a 5.25-inch size limit for male and female hard crabs, and took several other actions that are expected to result in an 11 percent reduction.

Maryland and the Potomac Commission plan to put their larger hard crab size limit into place Aug. 1. Maryland officials plan to have that size limit in place at the beginning of next year’s crab season, April 1, which they say would reduce harvest pressure by a total of 17 percent.

Similarly, if the increased size limit is also implemented effective April 1 on the Potomac next year, it will achieve a 15 percent reduction for 2003, said A.C. Carpenter, director of the Potomac commission.

Fox said the DNR had “modified the regulations in order to minimize, as much as possible, the impacts to the crab industry.” In particular, the state altered its final regulations to allow seafood processors to import crabs smaller than 5.25 inches from other states.

A Maryland Sea Grant study concluded that that prohibition would have cost the seafood industry $13.5 million in losses, which it said would have been a severe blow to some Eastern Shore communities.

Nonetheless, Casey Todd, of Metompkin Seafood in Crisfield and a member of the Blue Crab/Conservation Coalition and Chesapeake, Atlantic and Coastal Bays Watermen's Coalition, said the regulations will have a substantial economic impact on watermen, particularly on the lower part of the Bay, where the crabs run smaller.

“These are some of the poorer, rural parts of Maryland,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to replace this income and this business.” Meanwhile, Fox announced that the DNR and the state Department of Business and Economic Development will form a task force to examine the environmental, biological, social and economic issues facing the blue crab resource and the industry over the next 10 years.

The task force will include a full range of the stakeholder groups, and will look at such issues as the impact of the global market, regulatory implications, allocation issues, as well as the impact of additional license holders re-entering the fishery. Members of the task force will be appointed later this spring and will be asked to produce a report and recommendations in the summer of 2003.