RICHMOND, Va. - Commercial crabbers in Maryland probably can expect extra time off next season as part of an effort to reduce the Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest by about 15 percent over the next three years.
The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, meeting yesterday in a House of Delegates hearing room in Virginia's capital, adopted a management plan designed to ease pressure on the bay's most valuable commercial fishery. Now it is up to natural resources officials in Maryland and Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to come up with regulations to accomplish that.
For Maryland's commercial watermen, that probably will mean some combination of shorter days, a shorter workweek or a shorter season, said Eric Schwaab, director of fisheries for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Schwaab, one of the Maryland representatives to the committee, said that among watermen he has met with there "seems to be some interest" in shortening the workday.
Schwaab also said he and other DNR officials would hammer out an agreement on what to do before the crab season opens in April.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association and a representative to the committee, said his membership would discuss its options to decide what would "hurt the watermen the least and help the crabs."
Faced with steadily declining crab stocks, scientists have said the harvest must be cut by 15 percent to avoid a crash. The blue crab panel of conservationists, state fisheries experts, commercial watermen, seafood processors and recreational crabbers has been meeting for two years to draft a plan to stop the slide.
The plan adopted yesterday represents "a giant step forward," said Maryland Del. John F. Wood Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat and co-chairman of the blue crab committee. He said any changes in the way Maryland regulates its crab fishery can be handled at DNR, rather than through legislation in the General Assembly.
"The next step over the next four, five years is for the three jurisdictions to talk together and work it out," Wood said.
The plan calls for doubling the blue crab's spawning stock. Harvest levels might fluctuate, depending on the number of crabs in the bay, but the goal would require a reduction in annual harvests to a level 15 percent below the average harvest from 1997 to last year.
Besides shortening the amount of time crabbers can work, officials are considering a reduction in the number of pots an individual can fish or the length of trotline he can use, increasing the minimum size of crabs that can be kept or setting some areas off-limits.
Virginia created a deepwater crab sanctuary last summer, extending from the state line to the mouth of the bay, where it meets existing sanctuaries. The state also has imposed a moratorium on new crab licenses.
Rob O'Reilly, assistant fisheries chief for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said officials have discussed a year-round daily harvest limit.
Virginia watermen are limited to 51 bushels a day in April and May, but have no limits the rest of the season, which lasts through Nov. 30. They also dredge for crabs hibernating in the mud at the mouth of the bay during the winter.
The blue crab committee's plan also calls for monitoring licensed commercial crabbers who aren't crabbing now, but could start at any time, and recreational crabbers. It is unclear how much recreational crabbers take from the bay.
Keeping track of recreational crabbers might require new licensing procedures, the committee said.
The committee also recommended studying other management tools - such as transferable quotas - and starting long-term studies of the relationships among crabs, fin fish, water quality, bay grasses, migration routes and spawning grounds.
The committee is to meet again in the spring.