Watermen in Maryland and Virginia have voluntarily sold 924 commercial crabbing licenses back to state agencies through programs aimed at reducing pressure on the Chesapeake's struggling blue crab fishery.

All licenses returned through the buyback programs will be permanently retired.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission purchased 359 crabbing licenses through a $6.7 million buyback program that closed on Nov. 1. The purchase will reduce the cap on commercial crabbing licenses in Virginia to 1,649. It will also eliminate 75,441 crab pots from Virginia waters-18 percent of the existing total.

The commission described the program as a "reverse auction" in which watermen submitted their lowest acceptable price for the purchase of their licenses.

The commission received a total of 664 offers ranging from $500 to $634,000. The accepted offers ranged from $500 to $175,000. Seventy percent came from watermen ages 50 or older.

Commission spokesman John M.R. Bull said the response was better than expected.

"Originally, we had hoped to get 300 bids and thought that we would be able to buy back 100 of them. So this far surpassed our hope," Bull said.

The newly retired Virginia licenses include those from 190 watermen who have been crabbing on a full- or part-time basis and 169 crabbers who have not used their licenses since 2004.

Although the inactive licenses were suspended, the fishermen who held them could again become active once the crab population rebounded. Officials worry those licenses would pose problems if they were used in the future.

"When the overall crab population returns to abundance, those licenses could significantly undermine the stability of the stock if they were put back in use," said commission fisheries chief Jack Travelstead. "This is money well spent for the future of this fishery."

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has purchased 565 commercial crab licenses through a $3 million buyback program that offers $2,260 for each license.

The Maryland program targets smaller operations with Limited Crab Catcher licenses. Most LCC licensees use trotlines instead of crab pots.

Maryland's buyback program debuted in July and has retired both active and inactive licenses. The DNR plans to continue the program on a first-come, first-served basis until the funds are exhausted or the agency has purchased 1,327 of the 3,676 LCC licenses.

Watermen who don't want to sell inactive LCC licenses back to the state would face two choices under regulations proposed by the state. They can either agree to suspend the license until the crab population reaches a targeted number of 200 million adult crabs Baywide, or they can accept restrictions that will allow the harvest of male crabs only.

The change in license status, once set, becomes permanent.

DNR officials said that the buyback program has met agency expectations, but other actions are needed for the long-term sustainability of the blue crab fishery.

"Buying back these licenses is just one step we're taking to improve the management of the blue crab fishery," said fisheries service director Tom O'Connell. "We are also looking at ways to improve harvest reporting and working closely with Natural Resources Police to improve enforcement. These actions, along with the Baywide reduction in female harvest, will help maintain a healthy blue crab population in the Chesapeake."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declared the Chesapeake's blue crab fishery a disaster in 2008, after the population declined by 70 percent in the previous 15 years.

Virginia and Maryland each received $15 million in federal disaster funds, a portion of which funded the buyback programs in both states.