Newport News, Va. - A Virginia plan to better monitor the fishing of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs by tagging crab pots is on hold because of expected state spending cuts.
The governors of Maryland and Virginia agreed in April to take steps to reduce by one-third the number of female blue crabs harvested from the bay. As part of its effort, Virginia ordered a 30 percent reduction in "peeler" pots and a 15 percent reduction in hard-crab pots.
To help enforce those limits, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said watermen would be required to put a new colored tag on each of their crab pots. The tag would make it easier for marine officers to identify illegal pots and for the regulatory commission to keep track of how many pots are in the water.
But the tagging program would require approximately $300,000 to get it up and running, and VMRC officials say it's apparent that Virginia's General Assembly will not be able to come up with the funding.
"It has become increasingly clear that the state budget situation is grim and there is going to be more belt-tightening," John M.R. Bull, a spokesman for the commission, said yesterday. "We don't have the money now to do this on our own."
Currently, watermen are required to put their license number on the buoys that mark their pots. That system, however, does not allow officers to know whether a waterman is fishing more than the allowable number of pots. The new pot-tagging system was to be the centerpiece of continuing efforts to monitor the level of fishing pressure on blue crabs in Virginia's part of the bay.
The bay's blue crab stock is down about 65 percent since 1990 because of overfishing and water pollution, according to Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission, said tabling the pot-tagging effort could undercut the effectiveness of Virginia's new harvest restrictions. "If there isn't a tagging process, then you can't be sure the watermen are limiting the number of pots they're using," she said. "So it makes it less enforceable."
Virginia's new rules also include ending that state's winter dredge fishery, in which hibernating, pregnant females were raked from the bottom. Maryland, among other steps, is closing the season for female crabs two months early.