Va. crab sanctuary gets tentative OK

100-mile area in bay designed to provide spawning protection

May 24, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The agency that regulates Virginia's fisheries tentatively approved plans yesterday for a summertime blue crab sanctuary stretching nearly 100 miles up the middle of the Chesapeake Bay from its mouth at Cape Henry to the Maryland line at the Potomac River.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission ordered a hearing on the sanctuary proposal next month and is expected to approve it after the hearing.

The sanctuary, which generally follows depths of 35 feet and more, was developed by Rom Lipsius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, with input from watermen, wholesalers, and environmental groups. It would be in effect from June 1 to Sept. 15.

"That's timed to give female crabs coming down the bay to spawn some protection," said Jack Travelstead, fisheries manager for the agency.

The proposal comes nearly a year after Virginia imposed a one-year moratorium on new commercial crabbing licenses and on license transfers as part of a number of measures aimed at reducing pressure on the most valuable commercial fishery in the bay.

Rob Brumbaugh, fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Virginia office, called the sanctuary a "first step taken in Virginia to improve the way we manage crabs on a baywide basis."

Eric Schwaab of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources had doubts about whether the sanctuary would do much good.

"We're anxious to see what real benefits there are," he said yesterday. "A sanctuary is a good thing, but how good it is depends on how expansive it is."

Maryland has not established a sanctuary but will "do something complementary," Schwaab said. "But keep in mind, complementary doesn't necessarily mean identical," he said.

Worried about declining blue crab populations, Virginia and Maryland officials are in the midst of a two-year study of the fishery and are preparing to overhaul the way blue crabs are managed.

A baywide sanctuary is among the alternatives being discussed.

Travelstead endorsed a sanctuary plan in April 1999.

Brumbaugh, who was on the committee that reviewed the proposal, said watermen and environmentalists have endorsed it.

A growing number of Chesapeake Bay scientists fear that the blue crab is teetering on the edge of a crash, with reports of shrinking harvests over the past 10 years.

Last summer's blue crab harvest was better than that of 1998, when record lows were recorded, but it was below the average for the previous eight years. Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials are predicting a similar harvest this summer.

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