- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The steady decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab population is prompting Virginia to do a top-to-bottom review of its management approach.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the state panel that regulates blue-crab harvests, recently voted to review its efforts over the past two decades. It will begin with an independent scientific critique.

The Bay’s signature species has fallen below historical averages for 10 of the past 11 years.

Last week in Maryland, wildlife officials said fewer young crabs were found during an annual winter dredge survey of the Chesapeake Bay, which could mean smaller catches this year.

However, the total Bay crab harvest in Maryland and Virginia is expected to be similar to last year — about 51.8 million pounds — based on the survey numbers, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said.

At its April 24 meeting, the Virginia commission approved two initiatives to help pregnant female crabs, whose estimated populations have been especially weak in recent years. They make up roughly 70 percent of harvests in Virginia.

Commissioners voted to create a 94-square-mile sanctuary for pregnant females off the Virginia Beach coast, from Cape Henry at the mouth of the Bay down the Atlantic Ocean to the North Carolina border.

The no-harvest area is for commercial fishermen only from June 1 to Sept. 15. It covers ocean water from the coastline to three miles offshore.

The commission left the ban in place from May 15 to July 15, when most females release their first holding of millions of eggs.

Rom Lipcius, an ecologist and crab specialist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has been instrumental in pushing for crab sanctuaries to aid females. He successfully argued for a deep-water highway down the middle of the Bay in 1999, which has been expanded twice since then.

Virginia keeps nearly 1,000 square miles of the Bay closed to commercial crab harvests during peak summer months.

Pete Nixon, a Norfolk fisherman and president of the Lower Chesapeake Bay Watermen’s Association, spoke against the Virginia Beach sanctuary.

The effect of the ban and the expanded sanctuaries has forced watermen to seek crabs upstream in creeks and rivers, causing undue pressures there, he said.

Commission members said they want the new study of conservation efforts to look precisely at such problems of unintended consequences.

“Nothing bothers me more than regulations that do no good,” said Steve Bowman, executive director of the state commission.

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