Virginia officials tightened rules on harvesting blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay to try to restore the dwindling crab population-and signaled that even more dramatic changes may be coming this season, which started March 17.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted unanimously Feb. 26 for a spate of rule changes during a meeting packed with angry commercial crabbers.
"We're not going to survive this," said Charles Pruitt, a waterman from Tangier Island. "You might as well throw us out now; we've been regulated to death already."
The VMRC's action comes as Maryland also wrestles with new regulations. In the face of mounting evidence that the Bay's blue crab population is showing little signs of recovery, the two states have been discussing joint strategies for weeks and will continue to coordinate efforts, officials said.
Maryland is considering a maximum-size limit of 6.5 inches for female crabs, but only wants to proceed if Virginia agrees to do the same, said Jack Travelstead, Virginia's state director of fisheries. The limit will be discussed at the VMRC's April meeting.
Under the changes approved in February, the VMRC will require two escape hatches, or cull rings, to remain open on crab pots to give undersized female crabs a better chance to survive and spawn.
Commission members also increased the minimum size limit for peeler crabs, or those about to shed their shells, which are sold later as soft crabs for eating; moved to curb "agents" and "permit-stacking," in which watermen can let someone else harvest crabs in their place; and capped the number of watermen who can dredge crabs from the muddy bottom of the Bay as they hibernate during winter months. Only about 55 license holders will be able to continue this practice, although officials said they may ban winter dredging entirely when the commission meets again in April to discuss other conservation measures.
Also on tap for debate in April will be cutting the amount of crab pots and traps by between 10 and 30 percent, and perhaps as high as 50 percent; doing away with recreational crabbing licenses; and enforcing no-harvest sanctuaries for longer periods during the commercial season.
"Believe me, the commission gets no pleasure out of passing regulations that make things more difficult for watermen," said Steve Bowman, who heads the marine commission. "But the numbers don't lie. Things are bad. They're really bad."
For example, the average annual harvest in Virginia and Maryland from 1945 to 2006 was 72 million pounds. The harvest in 2007 was expected to be about 40 million pounds, the lowest on record.
Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have also documented a 70 percent decline in the abundance of adult crabs since 1991, when the state enacted 22 regulations designed to enhance stocks.
Travelstead said years of regulation may not have turned the population around but probably helped to avoid a complete collapse of the species.
Watermen, though, argue that the biggest problem facing crabs is not overfishing. They say crabs are suffering from a combination of factors, including pollution and lost habitat.