As my colleague Chuck Epes wrote earlier this week, the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs are once again in troubled waters. The catch was poor this summer. And the number of juvenile crabs estimated this past winter was 80 percent lower than the winter before. The number of spawning-age females was up, but still at levels far below what managers consider ideal.
Despite the unstable situation with the Bay’s iconic species, Virginia is considering re-opening its waters to dredging for crabs in the winter, which the commonwealth has banned since 2008. The ban was instituted as part of a joint effort with Maryland to boost crab reproduction by help the survival of female crabs carrying fertilized eggs. Dredges are rake-like devices with nets that are dragged along the bottom to scoop up crabs (often females, in the southern Bay during the winter) while they hibernate.
A vote by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) on a possible re-opening of the winter dredge season is scheduled for Tuesday.
John Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said that Virginia law requires VMRC to reconsider and reapprove the ban every year. “There has been a vocal number of commercial crabbers who have been adamant that we reopen this winter dredge fishery,” Bull said. “It’s an old fishery –- it’s been around for 100 years. We only closed it annually since 2008. And these dredgers have been pushing us for a number of years here to reopen it. They feel like they were unfairly singled out.”
If Virginia allows dredging for female crabs to resume, the catch would be more limited than in the past, Bull said. The commonwealth would allow only 37 dredge boats, instead of the 57 before the ban. And Virginia would impose restrictions on where the dredging would be allowed, and a cap on how many crabs could be caught. To compensate for the females taken by the dredge boats, Virginia would limit the catching of females with crab traps. So the overall number of crabs caught would not rise, Bull said.
“This is not re-opening the dredge fishery to increase the harvest,” Bull said. “It is just changing the methodology from which some of the harvest is caught.”
The possible re-opening of the dredging industry doesn’t sit well with everyone across the Bay region, whose crab population could be affected by Virginia’s decision. Dredging for crabs has long been illegal in Maryland.
The concerns arise in part because the Bay’s overall crab population fell by more than half last winter, with the numbers hitting levels similar to the disaster period of 2007-2008, when the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the Bay's blue crab fishery an economic disaster. The recent decline was in part because of weather conditions unfavorable for the survival of blue crab larvae and large populations of fish that eat juvenile crabs.
“While there are some very positive aspects to the scenarios which the industry and VMRC have drawn up, now is not the time to reopen another sector of the fishery,” said Bill Goldsborough, Director of Fisheries for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The crab stock is down this year, and the crabbing has been terrible, last year and this year."
Lynn Fegley, Deputy Director of the Fisheries Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said she would also prefer that Virginia keep its ban on dredging in place. “We have this low reproduction,” Fegley said. “We have not had a chance to gauge the population this year. So we would hope for some caution. We would prefer not to change things up,” in terms of crab management right now, she said.
She added, however, that the idea of “conservation equivalency” (substituting one set of fishing regulations for another, as long as it is equally protective) is a valid concept. Virginia argues that its new regulations would be conservationally equivalent for the blue crabs.
Dr. Tuck Hines, another blue crab expert who is Director the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said it would be risky to re-institute the winter dredging for crabs in Virginia, even in a limited way right now, given the tenuous state of the blue crabs.
“The regulations that were imposed to deal with the federal disaster status of the fishery (in 2008) appear to be successful,” Hines said. “But the stock is not fully recovered, and continues to go through stresses and strains at present.”
Dr. Hines said it is not clear that the alternative crabbing restrictions that Virginia might propose will work as well as the ban on dredging, which proved to be highly effective.
“In the case of the winter dredge fishery, it is much easier to enforce,” Dr. Hines said. “The number of fishermen and boats that are involved are well known, obvious and can be tracked readily. So the enforcement aspect of that is pretty good. Enforcement of other aspects of the fishery are much more problematic.”
The big picture is that, although there have been some hopeful signs recently for the Bay’s iconic species, the crabs are not yet out of the woods. Taking excessive numbers of mature females is not a path to recovery.
People who care about protecting the blue crabs can take action by clicking here. You can express their views to one of the officials in charge by writing to Robert L. O’Reilly, VMRC Fisheries Management Division, 2600 Washington Avenue, 3rd Floor, Newport News, Virginia 23607.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo from the Chesapeake Bay Program)