Normally, watermen purchase licenses from state agencies, but in a new twist, Maryland and Virginia are trying to buy back crab licenses from watermen.

Fisheries agencies in both states, who have been trying to reduce harvest pressure on a blue crab population that is near an all-time low, have launched a multimillion-dollar effort to reduce the number of available licenses.

Although both states have capped the number of crabbing licenses they issue, hundreds of licensed watermen in both states are not actively catching crabs. Officials worry that if those license holders became active, it could offset the conservation efforts they've put in place.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced a "reverse auction" in July in which watermen could submit bids to sell their licenses. At the end of the bid period on July 31, only 494 crabbers made offers, significantly fewer than the 2,000 target.

The department rejected those bids, but used the information to make a counteroffer of $2,260 per license. The offer is being made to 3,676 holders of commercial Limited Crab Catcher licenses.

More than 1,000 of those license holders have not fished a single day since 2004, according to state fishery officials. Although all holders of the LCC license are eligible for the buyback, the state is especially targeting inactive license holders, saying those who keep their licenses will likely be subject to additional regulations

"Our concern is if even a fraction of these individuals decide to re-enter the fishery in a given year, our regulations will not be sufficient to maintain the harvest target," said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin. "The license buyback program is our first step to reduce the amount of latent effort in Maryland's commercial blue crab fishery."

While Maryland's program targets latent effort, the Virginia program is aimed at reducing the number of both latent and active crabbers.

Virginia's program is divided among three groups. Half of the money is targeting full-time license holders-people who averaged fishing more than 100 days with crab pots or 60 days with peeler pots annually from 2004 to 2007. Another 30 percent of the funds is going to purchase licenses from part-time crabbers. The remaining 20 percent will be used to reduce the nearly 600 people on waiting lists to get licenses.

As in Maryland, once the state buys a license, it is permanently retired. Those on the waiting list can only acquire licenses from active watermen.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which announced the program in July, will take bids until Nov. 1 to give watermen plenty of time to consider the issue.

"They will bid based on what they think the license should be worth to buy back," said Rob O'Reilly, a fisheries biologist with VMRC. "We are not assisting with that process nor giving them any information as to what a license would be worth. That is strictly up to them."

He said 1,874 watermen have crabbing licenses in Virginia.

The program was met with skepticism among watermen.

Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen's Association, said a full-time crabber who's good at what he does is likely to ask $200,000 to $300,000 for his license.

"The only people who are going to put their licenses up for sale are not serious crabbers anyway," he said.

Peter Nixon, a waterman since 1969, put 300 pots out this season around Norfolk and estimated his license would have to fetch $500,000, based on how much longer he plans to work the waters.

"I think it's a waste of money," said Nixon, vice-president of the Virginia Seafood Council. "This buyback is going to do nothing."

But in Maryland, Larry Simns, longtime president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he thought that the state's offer of $2,260 was a good deal for watermen with little participation in the fishery.

"That's a good price for the licenses," he said. "They're treating them fairly."

Last year, faced with data showing that the blue crab population was mired at near-record low levels with no hint of recovery, Virginia and Maryland acted together to reduce the catch of female crabs by 34 percent.

The Baywide Winter Blue Crab Dredge Survey last winter reported a large increase in the number of 1-year-old female crabs, suggesting the regulations are having an effect.

State efforts to control catches are continuing this year to give those female crabs a chance to survive and spawn.

Because of the sharp drop in blue crab numbers-which have fallen about 70 percent since the early 1990s-the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service last year declared the Bay blue crab fishery a disaster and awarded each state $10 million in disaster funds, with additional funding expected this year.

Virginia is putting $6.7 million of its money into the buyback program while Maryland is spending $3 million.

Reports dating back a decade have suggested that there are too many fishermen and too much equipment, involved in the blue crab fishery. Unless the numbers are reduced, either the crabs will be overfished, or there will be so many watermen pursuing them that they will not be able to make a living.