Virginia, which recorded its lowest blue crab catch in 36 years, plans public hearings in January on proposals to curb pressure on the Bay's most valuable fishery, including a freeze on the number of crab pot licenses issued.

The action follows a move by Maryland that sought to curb this year's crab catch by 20 percent. Maryland officials plan additional restrictions for next fall.

"The blue crabs in the Bay are a concern to all of us," Virginia Gov. George Allen said at the annual Chesapeake Executive Council meeting Nov. 30. Allen said it was important that watermen and other affected parties be allowed to comment at what he predicted would be a "well- attended" public hearings before final action was taken, but he added that "we are moving forward."

Two days earlier, the staff of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission offered four proposals to reduce crab harvests. They included:

  • Set an immediate freeze on crab pot and peeler pot licenses. Beginning in 1996, crab pot and peeler pot licenses would be sold only to people who had licenses as of Nov. 27, 1995. A special committee would determine how new people would enter the fishery as old licenses became available.

  • Establish a 300-pot limit for each licensee in the crab pot and peeler pot fisheries. The current limit is 400 pots.
  • Prohibit the possession of egg-bearing female (sponge) crabs which have late-stage eggs of brown or black coloration.

  • Establish a 3.5 inch minimum size limit on soft crabs.

As an alternative, representatives of the seafood industry offered several proposals, including:

  • Establish an additional female crab sanctuary in the middle Chesapeake Bay area, generally off the mouth of the Rappahannock River. No crabbing would be allowed in the area between June 1 and Sept. 15.

  • Shorten the winter crab dredge season by two weeks with the new season running from Dec. 1 through March 15.

  • Establish a peeler and soft crab season from April 1 through Sept. 30. Peeler crabbing on Sundays would not be permitted after June 15.

  • Establish a 3.5 inch minimum size limit for soft crabs.

  • Place a 45 bushel, or 1,800 pound daily catch limit per licensee on sponge crabs. No sponge crabs would be caught in peeler pots, peeler pounds or by crab scrapes.

The VMRC will conduct a public hearing on the proposals at its Jan. 23 meeting, at which time it may take action. At least one other public hearing is expected, but no date has been set. Virginia's crab harvest of 25 million pounds this year was half the 1993 harvest and 8 million pounds less than the 1992 catch, which had been the leanest harvest since 1959.

Baywide, the blue crab fishery is worth about $187 million a year.

Both Maryland and Virginia had taken actions before this year to restrict harvests, but some managers and scientists said previous measures did not go far enough to limit the crab catch. In particular, scientists have called for measures that reduce the catch of female crabs so they can survive to reproduce.

An annual winter dredge survey conducted for the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office has shown a 34 percent decline in the blue crab population over the last six years.

Prior to the commission's action, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had waged a campaign that resulted in thousands of letters and postcards being mailed to Allen urging additional steps to protect the crab. CBF President William Baker called the VMRC staff recommendations "consistent with those of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the scientific community, and we urge their approval by the commission."

Virginia's action was also praised by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who has promised regulations to cut next year's catch by another 20 percent. Watermen, though, have insisted that Virginia take action before Maryland further restricts the catch.

"One of the things that is clear is that the crabs are not just a Maryland problem, this is not just a Virginia problem," Glendening said at the Executive Council meeting. "The responsibility for crabs cuts across all jurisdictions. I appreciate Gov. Allen's understanding of the issue. It is obvious to the two of us, that if the blue crab is going to be saved, it will be done on our watch, and it will be done by our working together."

Maryland officials are currently reviewing the results of their actions this fall, which included closing the season six weeks early, restricting the number of hours crabbing could take place each day and restricting commercial crabbing to six days a week and recreational crabbing to three. Maryland Department of Natural Resource officials plan to meet with interest groups in December and January to develop regulations for the 1996 season.

"The stakes are too high for us not to move on this problem." Glendening said. "We cannot permit what happened to the rockfish to happen to the blue crab."