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Chesapeake Bay crab population up 49 percent
By Cory Nealon | 247-4760
Finally, some good news from the Chesapeake Bay
Virginia and Maryland announced Friday the blue crab population soared to 418 million, a 49 percent increase from last year.
The boost, if sustained, could help resuscitate the bay's commercial crab industry, which has been devastated the past two decades by pollution, overfishing and disease.
The number of adult crabs in the bay this winter reached 243 million, well beyond regulators' goal of 200 million. Juvenile crabs, meanwhile, remained stagnant at 175 million a number that scientists said should grow because more female crabs will spawn this year.
Scientists credited the surge to controversial regulations including canceling the winter dredging season in Virginia implemented last year.
"It's clearly the result of our management," said Lynn Fegley, a biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
As the population continues to grow, regulators said they will allow commercial fishermen to harvest more crab the 2008 harvest, 46.8 million pounds, is well below the 74 million pound average.
That bodes well for Virginia's watermen, whose ranks have dwindled to 3,000, a precipitous drop from the 1970s when they numbered around 8,000.
Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Waterman's Association, said he was pleased the crab population is rising. But he questioned state officials' contention that it is largely the result of the regulations.
The crab population, Smith said, is cyclical and has a tendency to rebound on its own. There are outside factors, such as tides and wind, that may have contributed to the population spike, he said.
John M.R. Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said the population study was conducted during the winter when crabs burrow into the bay's floor. Therefore, he said, it's unlikely that winds or tide played a role in the surge.
Smith also criticized the commission for limiting the fishery and not curbing pollution levels, which, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, remain a major problem in the bay.
"It's easier to scapegoat the waterman than it is to take on everyone else," Smith said.
The commission is expected next month to set regulations for the upcoming crab season.
Jack Travelstead, the commission's fishery chief, stopped short of saying last year's regulations will remain in place. But he said the commission is "very inclined" to keep them.
That would include canceling the winter dredging season, which Travelstead estimated saved 15 million to 20 million female crabs this past winter.
The matter has been a sore point for watermen, who sued to have the ban lifted. A Norfolk judge ruled earlier this month that the commission can continue to close the season, however, it must hold annual public hearings before doing so.
The regulations also include closing the female crab season early, reducing the number of pots watermen and recreational fishers can use to catch crab, and suspending dormant licenses.
The number of licenses issued this year is 2,034, a 25 percent drop from the year before. This is largely because the commission placed approximately 600 licenses which hadn't been used since 2003 on a waiting list.
The commission will re-evaluate those licenses if the crab population continues to rebound and remains sustainable for three years, Bull said.
Last year the commission considered requiring watermen to tag their pots, which would make it easier for marine officers to spot illegal pots.
The proposal was nixed, however, because the commission said it didn't have the $300,000 required to start the program.
Blue crab population (in the millions) in the Chesapeake Bay: