The worst blue crab catch in 36 years may lead to more restrictions on Virginia's watermen, Virginia Marine Resources Commission officials said. This year's catch totaled 25 million pounds, half the size of the 1993 harvest and 8 million pounds less than 1992, which had been the leanest harvest since 1959, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Roy Insley, chief of crab management for the VMRC, said studies found that the number of crabs caught per pot per day has fallen for the past two years.

"We have two basic problems: The size of the spawning stock is too low, and there's too much catching gear out there," Insley said. The situation would have been even worse if conservation measures had not been put in place, he said.

Last year, VMRC added 75 square miles to a 153-square-mile sanctuary near Cape Charles. The area is designed to protect spawning crabs and is off limits to crab potters from June 1 through Sept. 15.

The VMRC also marked off 75 square miles in Hampton Roads as a winter crab sanctuary to protect hibernating crabs from dredging during the Dec. 1 through March 31 dredge season.

Also, the commission required that pots be fitted with a second escape ring to protect undersized crabs and limited the number of pots a waterman can set for molting crabs, which supply the growing soft shell trade.

Nevertheless, the latest data show that "something is definitely wrong with the crab catch", said VMRC member Timothy Hayes of Richmond.

In September, Maryland imposed a series of new catch restrictions aimed at reducing the this year's catch by 20 percent. The action was spurred by recent data that shows the Bay's blue crab population is at a "low phase". An annual winter dredge survey conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shown a 34 percent decline in the blue crab population over the past six years.

A NOAA- sponsored stock assessment is also under way to determine the health of the Bay crab stock. Scientists performing the stock assessment analyze historical data relating to crab populations, fishing pressure and other factors that may influence the stock and with, the use of population models, try to determine the point at which fishing pressure would threaten the sustainability of the stock. That information, which is expected by the end of the year, can then be used by managers to set new fishing guidelines.

The Chesapeake Bay, historically the world's top producer of blue crabs, slipped to second place in 1993 behind the Gulf of Mexico. The declining crab catch is doubly bleak to watermen, who already have lost the oyster crop to disease and, some say, overfishing.

The crab shortage comes as no surprise to consumers. Retail prices for crab meat have doubled from about $10 a pound five years ago to about $20 a pound this year.

Hayes, who is chairman of the VMRC's blue crab subcommittee, said the 1995 estimates make a good argument for adding more controls to an already long list of catch restrictions.

"It just makes sense to try to at least cut down on the effort and the pressure on that fishery until we see things get better," he said. "We're not in the position where we're going to push the panic button, but I think we realize the things we did last year are helpful, but we've got to do more."

The blue crab subcommittee also will consider the decline when it meets Nov. 7. Hayes wants that panel of watermen and commission members to developrecommendations by Nov. 28.

He could not say what additional restrictions might be recommended, but he said if any are made, they probably will come from a list of options being examined by a legislative panel. That panel, which received the new estimate in mid-October, was empowered by the General Assembly this year to review crab management in Virginia.

That list includes:

  • further restrictions on the winter dredge catch and season length;

  • closing the crab sanctuaries up to year-round;

  • freezing the number of commercial crab pot and peeler pot licensees at this year's level; and

  • setting restrictions on the capture of pregnant crabs bearing egg sacs.