In a move painful for watermen but one that scientists said was essential to maintain the Bay's most valuable remaining fisheries, Virginia and Maryland in April moved to slash female blue crab harvests by 34 percent this year.
The moves follow a near-record low Baywide crab harvest of 44.2 million pounds last year, and continuing evidence that the blue crab population lingers near historic low levels.
The cuts were sought by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who reinforced the urgency of the situation by making a joint appearance along the Potomac River, where they were briefed on the latest blue crab survey results.
"Maryland and Virginia must act now, and we must act together, to reduce harvest pressure on blue crabs immediately, and in so doing protect both the biological and the economic sustainability of our shared resource," the governors said in a joint statement.
Figures derived from the annual Baywide winter dredge survey show that about 60 percent of adult crabs were harvested last year. That was significantly above the maximum safe harvest threshold of 53 percent, and even further above the 46 percent harvest target that scientists say would lead to a rebound in the population.
The 53 percent threshold has been exceeded seven times in the last 10 years. During that same period, harvests have been below the 46 percent target just once.
Saying blue crabs were "at the heart of our cultural heritage," Kaine and O'Malley said harvest reductions were critical to protect a Baywide fishery valued between $120 million and $200 million annually.
It is the second time in the last decade that the states have undertaken a major overhaul in crab regulations in an attempt to rebuild the population from near-record lows, where it has lingered for most of the past decade.
After a sharp drop in crab abundance during the late 1990s, the states in 2001 implemented a series of actions aimed at reducing harvest pressure by 15 percent. The ultimate goal of those actions was to increase the number of spawning females, and thereby rebuild the population.
Although those actions were credited with halting the downward trajectory of the population, they never achieved the goal of doubling the number of spawning females and rebuilding the population. Instead, the population stabilized at a near-historic low level.
"The previous restrictions that were in place don't seem to have curbed exploitation," said Tom Miller, a fisheries scientist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who oversaw the most recent Baywide blue crab stock assessment. Further harvest restrictions are needed to allow the stock to rebuild, he said.
"Most people would recognize that taking 60 percent of the trees from the forest, or 60 percent of the elephants from the herd or 60 percent of the killer whales from the pod, is not sustainable," he said. "There has to be some kind of [harvest] reduction."
The Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, a group of scientists and fishery managers that has expressed growing concern about the blue crab stock in recent years, said in a report to agencies earlier this year that the most effective means of rebuilding the crab population would be to increase protection for mature female crabs to ensure they survive and reproduce.
Lynn Fegley, a fisheries scientist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said scientists believe a 34 percent harvest reduction focused largely on protecting females is expected to reduce the overall catch to 46 percent of the adult population-the harvest target that scientists believe will lead to a rebuilding of the stock.
The interim rebuilding goal is to achieve a population of 200 million adults-a level the Bay has had only once in the past 11 years.
Scientists cautioned that reaching the 200 million goal likely will not happen in a single year. While increasing the number of female crabs raises the odds of increasing the population, multiple factors influence crab reproductive success, including ocean conditions off the mouth of the Bay, where crab larvae spend the first weeks of their lives.
"Getting to the target in just one year doesn't magically give you the amount of spawning potential that the crabs need," said Robert O'Reilly, a fisheries scientist with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "It has to be sustained over several years."
But the reductions will bring pain to watermen. Biologists say the new restrictions will reduce this year's catch from a predicted 46 million pounds to 38 million pounds-the lowest on record.
Watermen across the Chesapeake have said they could be run out of business by such reductions as they wait for the population to rebound, which could take years.
"Everybody will feel it, and some will feel it more than others," said Marcus Blake, a crabber from Essex in Baltimore County.
Watermen in both states were considering lawsuits. In Virginia, they were exploring the potential of suing state and federal agencies over their failure to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
To lessen the burden on watermen, officials in both states said they would seek funds to employ watermen on restoration projects.
"The industry's not very receptive to that right now," ac2nowledged Tom O'Connell, director of the DNR's Fisheries Service. "But I think there's a lot of productive work that could be accomplished."
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted April 22 to close its winter dredge season, which has often been controversial because it harvests mainly females, which are hibernating in the muddy bottom.
It will also close the crabbing season for female crabs on Oct. 27; the season normally closes Nov. 30. The commission approved a series of other actions-all on 7-2 votes, such as reducing crab pot licenses by 15 percent and peeler pot licenses 30 percent starting this May. It also required two additional cull rings-escape holes for small crabs-on all crab pots used in the Bay effective July 1.
"The scientific data is overwhelming and without doubt identifies a problem that must be addressed decisively," said VMRC Commissioner Steven Bowman. "To delay or to take half measures would be irresponsible."
In Maryland, fishery officials proposed a set of emergency regulations that would close the commercial harvest of female crabs on Oct. 23, and impose individualized catch limits effective Sept. 1 based on a waterman's recent annual average female blue crab harvest. In addition, recreational crabbers would be prohibited from catching any females, except for soft crabs.
If approved by a special legislative panel, the regulation could be enacted by mid-May. If that committee does not approve the change, department officials said they would use the longer administrative rule-making process and impose a total closure on female commercial crab harvests effective Oct. 11.
Winter Dredge Survey
Chesapeake Bay blue crab abundance is determined by the annual Baywide winter dredge survey, conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which samples crabs during the winter-when they are buried in the mud and stationary-allowing scientists to develop, with good precision, estimates of the number and ages of crabs present in the Bay.
This year's survey showed the number of adult crabs at about 120 million adults. In the 11 years from 1997 through 2007, the number of adult crabs averaged 150 million. In contrast, adult crab abundance averaged about 300 million between 1990 and 1996.
The interim restoration goal is to achieve and maintain a level of at least 200 million adult crabs.