Va. fishery manager endorses proposal for blue crab sanctuaries

Watermen upset in wake of poor harvesting season

April 28, 1999|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Worried that blue crabs are in trouble, Virginia's top fishery manager has endorsed a plan to create a network of crab sanctuaries stretching most of the length of the Chesapeake Bay, where the delectable and valuable creatures would be off-limits to watermen.

Jack Travelstead, fisheries manager for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, also urged the commissioners meeting in Newport News last night to enact other restrictions on crabbing, amid growing evidence that the bay's last great seafood crop is being overfished.

It was a turnabout for Virginia officials, who historically have been more lenient than Maryland in regulating watermen -- but after a bad winter dredge season, some Virginia watermen say they, too, believe the crabs are being overfished and need protection.

"There are a lot of watermen here. This place is packed," said VMRC spokesman Wilford Kale. "Some watermen have started talking about curtailing the crab fishery. They think it's a good idea. There are others who say the crabs will take care of themselves."

The Virginia watermen are upset in the wake of a record low blue crab harvest last year, a disappointing catch in their state's winter fishery and experts' predictions that 1999 will be another bad year for catching crabs.

Last year's Maryland blue crab catch was the worst on record, with 26 million pounds caught compared with an average of 41 million pounds since the mid-1970s. Virginia watermen harvested 35 million pounds, close to their average.

Harvest figures aren't available for Virginia's winter fishery -- in which crabbers dredge the mud where much of the crab population hibernates, near the bay's mouth -- but the catch was "terribly off," Kale said.

Maryland biologists' winter survey is forecasting another low harvest during the main, warm-weather crab season.

In January, Maryland and Virginia officials agreed to spend the next two years studying the fishery and preparing a complete overhaul of the way blue crabs are managed.

To ease watermen's fears of new regulations, the two states' fishery managers vowed not to add any new restrictions in the meantime.

But at last night's meeting, the commission voted 7-4 to take up several proposals for new restrictions when the panel meets May 25.

Among the proposals to be considered: a freeze on new crab licenses and license transfers; a mandatory sunrise-to-1 p.m. workday; and raising the minimum legal size for female crabs.

Some of these proposals are similar to regulations in place in Maryland.

The most sweeping idea -- the necklace of permanent deep-water sanctuaries running from well up into Maryland to the blue crabs' spawning grounds at the mouth of the bay -- will not be discussed at next month's meeting. Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences crab expert Rom Lipcius said he will present a final sanctuary proposal to Virginia and Maryland officials in the fall.

Virginia has three existing crab sanctuaries, but they are off-limits to watermen only at certain times of the year. Lipcius' plan would create the first year-round blue crab sanctuaries in the bay.

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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