The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has adopted a pair of measures aimed at reducing fishing pressure on the blue crab as part of an effort to comply with a Baywide management plan that calls for stabilizing the economically important crab fishery, which has grown dramatically in recent years.
The commission approved measures that would limit the number of people participating in the blue crab dredge fishery and backed a proposal that would lower the daily dredge catch limit per boat from 25 barrels to 20 barrels.
The commission, meanwhile, put off action on a proposal that would have curbed the peeler pot crab fishery by limiting the number of pots per fisherman to 200.
The peeler pot catch is generally believed to have increased significantly in recent years and some have blamed it for contributing to last year’s poor crab harvest. But because a previously approved peeler pot license did not take effect until Jan. 1, 1994, the commission has not been able to collect good information about the number of people participating or the total catch.
“More people are getting into it so it’s quite significant, but we don’t know how many,” said Ellen Smoller, a commission staff member.
The commission decided to wait a year to collect better information from the licensing before taking action.
“Peeler” crabs, caught in pots in shallower waters, are mostly immature females shedding their shells to mate. They form the basis of the soft-shell crab market which, on a per-pound basis, can pull five times the price of hard crabs.
The dredge industry tends to catch larger adult males in deeper waters. Under the new regulation, only those watermen who are licensed when the current season concludes at the end of March will be allowed to participate in next year’s season, which begins Dec. 31. No new dredge licenses will be issued until the number of people with licenses declines to 225. That number will then serve as a cap. The VMRC staff has recommended that any licenses that become available later be distributed by lottery. Last year, 271 people were licensed to participate in the fishery.
The second measure, reducing the daily dredge catch limit from 25 barrels to 20 barrels, is expected to spread the catch season out longer and increase the value of the catch, as well as possibly reducing the crab harvest.
Bill Goldsborough, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff scientist specializing in fisheries, said the VMRC’s actions were “not comprehensive enough to cap the fishery” but added that the measures were “a good start.”
“They’re dealing with the parts of their fishery which have been the most unstable and have expanded the most in recent years and caused the greatest concern — that being the winter dredge fishery in particular, but also the peeler pot fishery,” Goldsborough said. “But our feeling has been all along that they need to look at all parts of the fishery and adopt measures that cap effort equitably, as per the management plan.”
The measures to restrict crab harvests follow a recent Baywide decline in the blue crab harvest, causing some fishery managers to worry that blue crabs — which have been subject to increased fishing pressure as other species have declined — were in danger of being overharvested.
Maryland is also moving forward with a series of regulatory and legislative measures aimed at capping the blue crab catch.
Earlier this year, the VMRC required that escape holes be put in crab pots — pots are actually wire-mesh cages — to allow crabs smaller than the legal size to escape. In addition, the commission in May limited recreational crabbers to five pots each.
More actions are expected in Virginia with the intent of capping each part of the blue crab fishery. “The goal is to stabilize the resource,” Smoller said.