With the federal government recently declaring the Chesapeake's blue crab fishery an economic disaster, and states slashing harvest levels to help rebuild the population, some scientists say it's time for a radical overhaul in the way crabs are managed.

Their idea: Give ownership of the crabs to watermen.

A group of three scientists has proposed scraping the complex set of rules that regulate when, where and how watermen can work and replace it with a "rights-based" fishery. Individual watermen would "own" a certain percentage of the total catch. Every year, based on the estimated size of the crab population, each waterman would be told how many crabs he could catch based on what share of the fishery he owns.

Watermen increase their share by purchasing the rights of a waterman who wants to leave the business.

Each waterman would be free to fish how and where they chose, as long as he stayed within his allotted quota and adhered to other regulations such as size limits. Instead of competing with others trying to maximize their catch early in the season, a waterman could chose to catch his share when it was most convenient, or when prices are right.

"Not everyone would feel like they needed to be out in the spring trying to catch everything they can," said Doug Lipton, an associate professor of economics with the University of Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program. "They can withhold their quota share until later in the season when prices are high."

Lipton, along with Tom Miller, a fisheries professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and Leonard Shabman, resident scholar at Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank, put forth the idea this summer in a commentary that appeared in the Washington Post.

The management concept they propose-individual transferable quotas or ITQs-has long been suggested by some economists as a preferable way to manage at least some fisheries. There are several ITQ fisheries in the United States, although they have been more accepted in some other countries such as New Zealand.

The concept gained more attention this fall when a study published in the Sept. 19 issue of Science strongly suggested that ITQs do a better job of preventing fishery collapses and promoting recovery than traditional management. As a result, the study's authors said, the profits from those fisheries had the potential to substantially increase.

While the theory may sound good, making it a reality is no simple matter. Lipton, Miller and Shabman said the most difficult part of any quota system is trying to decide the initial "fair share" to be allocated to each individual waterman.

The big transition issue is the division of a quota among the existing license holders," Lipton said. "Who gets that 1,000-bushel quota, and how do you get to that?"

Dividing the catch equally may not seem fair because some watermen rely more on the crab catch to make a living than others. But basing it solely on recent catches has drawbacks too-some watermen may not have used their licenses recently because they were injured, off fighting in Iraq or other reasons. But such issues have been faced and successfully addressed in other fisheries in which rights-based approaches have been adopted. ITQs need not be a rigid winner-take-all system.

Maryland officials heard such concerns loud and clear this year when, to meet its 34 percent reduction in the female crab harvest, the Department of Natural Resources set the its first-ever bushel catch limit, based on their recent catch histories. "People are telling us by the hundreds, 'I haven't crabbed in years, but I really need to this year because I need the money," said Lynn Fegley, a fisheries manager with the DNR.

Many watermen have crab licenses, but drift in and out of the fishery based on a variety of factors, ranging from the strength of the crab population to their own financial situation.

The notion of reducing that flexibility with a rigid catch quota is strongly opposed. "They kind of did that, and that is what has caused all the heartburn now," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "That doesn't work. It sounds good on paper, but it doesn't work."

There are other issues as well, a quota system would almost certainly lead to fewer watermen in the crab fishery as the most efficient crabbers would tend to buy out others. In other areas, ITQs have led to the "corporatization" of the fishery, where a handful of people own all of the fishing rights. In the Bay, that could be devastating to fishing-based communities.

Shabman said any system needs to be designed to ensure that wouldn't happen. "We always talk about what we want the population of crabs to look like," he said. "One of the questions ought to be what do we want the crab-harvesting community to look like?"

What makes the blue crab fishery attractive for a quota system is the emergence of the annual blue crab winter dredge survey as a remarkably precise indicator of blue crab abundance.

Survey results allow scientists to estimate the size of the population. By March or April of each year, they can estimate the actual number of crabs that could be caught while leaving enough to maintain the population at healthy levels. While an individual's share of the catch may stay the same, their quota number would go up and down with the population.

"The quality of the information we have coming through the winter dredge survey and its strong correlation with catch means that this is a fishery that, in many senses, is ideally suited to a quota-based or rights-based fishery," Miller said.

In contrast, agencies have historically tried to control crab harvest by managing effort-the amount of time and gear directed toward catching crabs. That had led to complex regulations saying how much gear watermen can use, where they can fish and how many days of the week- even how many hours a day-they can fish.

It is often cumbersome for fishermen, agencies and enforcement personnel.

And, it has a mixed track record of success. In recent years, crab catches have often exceeded management goals. That has contributed to the crab population hovering at near-record low levels of abundance for the last decade. To help rebuild the stock, both Maryland and Virginia announced this year they would slash the harvest of female crabs by 34 percent. In September, the federal government declared the Bay's blue crabs a "commercial fishing failure," making watermen eligible for financial assistance.

Under a quota system, most regulations could be scrapped-the absolute catch limit ensures enough crabs are protected to maintain the stock.

"The principal difference is you really wouldn't have to put any restriction on when, where or how the watermen fished," Miller said. "You could say you're licensed to catch 1,000 bushels of crabs this season, and we don't care how you get them."

In recommendations to fishery managers earlier this year, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee concluded that "regulating fishing effort is not the most direct or effective method for controlling harvest."

In large part, that's because it is difficult to establish the relationship between the amount of effort targeting blue crabs, and the actual catch. The committee recommended that agencies move toward a "catch- based" management system, but made no recommendations about any specific system.

But Robert O'Reilly, a fisheries scientist with the Virginia Marine Resource Commission and a member of the stock assessment committee, said a catch quota is difficult for managers to monitor because crabs are landed at so many locations that it is difficult to keep track of the number caught.

An alternative, he suggested, would be a individual transferable "effort" system in which, for example, a cap was placed on the total number of crab pots in the state, with watermen being licensed to fish a certain number. As with the catch quota system, those rights would be bought and sold.

More work needs to be done to quantify the relationship between the number of pots being fished and the actual catch, O'Reilly said. But in theory, a cap could be set on the number of pots being used each year, much in the way a catch-quota system sets a numeric limit on the number of crabs caught. "Everything could be in the currency of the amount of pots that you are able to fish," he said.

It's also easier to monitor the number of pots in the water than actual landings as long as the pots are marked, he said. The state of Virginia's budget precluded it from the startup of the pot-tagging program for 2009. "The pot marking was the prelude to the transferable program for pots," O'Reilly said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has also called for an individual transferable effort system. It has proposed placing a cap on the amount of fishing gear-mainly pots-and then allocating the "effort" among watermen. The states would reduce the total amount of gear allowed each year until a sustainable level was reached.

Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the CBF, said he preferred the effort-based system because under a catch-quota system, it would still be possible for an excessive amount of gear to be used until the quota was reached. Too much gear results in reduced catch per unit gear and can lead to most crabs being caught just as they become legal size. That reduces the value of the catch, as larger crabs are worth more, and reduces reproductive potential as larger crabs tend to be better spawners.

"The quota-based approach is most readily based in the science," he acknowledged, "but I think there will still be some tendency to use too much effort. An effort-based system attempts to improve the quality of the fishery as well as its sustainability."

In either system, he said, transferability is a key element. "Transferability would get you to the optimal number of participants," Goldsborough said. "If that number were lower than we have now, those who drop out of it would do so by their own choice. And when they do, they cash in with a bit of a nest egg."

In the present system, watermen just go out of the crabbing business. "They've got nothing to show for it, and the gear is useless," he said.

The path to either a catch-based, or effort-based, system is not clear.

Several years ago, a Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, which brought together managers, watermen and others to deal with crab issues, began exploring the potential of different management systems, including quota and effort systems, for the blue crab fishery. But the committee was disbanded before any conclusions about alternative management were reached.

Lipton, Miller and Shabman said such a body should be reconvened for managers, watermen and others to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different management scenarios and reach consensus. Any transition, they said, should phase in over time.

"It may take two or more years to work our way out of the regulatory morass that we are in now into a more clean, understandable system," Shabman said. "What should we do next? Let's get watermen, regulators and other stakeholders together again and talk this through. It sounds kind of wimpy as a recommendation for the next step, but that would be my suggestion."