- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

NORFOLK (AP) — Virginia’s crab-pot season has started under recently tightened rules, and more restrictions likely are on the way.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission this week will consider whether to enforce no-harvest sanctuaries for a longer time as part of efforts to restore the diminishing blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay, said John Bull, commission spokesman.

Next month, the commission will vote on reducing by as much as 30 percent the number of crab pots a waterman may put in the Bay and its tributaries during the season, which runs through Nov. 30.

Watermen fear being regulated out of their livelihoods. They argue the changes are targeting overfishing but that pollution and other environmental problems are a much bigger threat to blue crabs.

Many watermen already have cut back the time they spend crabbing or have found other work because owning, maintaining and operating a boat is so expensive that it’s hard to make much of a profit, said C.D. Hancock, president of the Coastal Virginia Waterman’s Association, in Hampton.

Beyond the conservation measures adopted over the past decade, the crab population in Virginia is now 30 percent of what it was in 1991, according to the commission.

In January, a panel of scientists from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina that studied the issue for 10 months recommended regulators act quickly to help the blue crab.

Last month, committee members voted unanimously, despite protests from watermen, to approve rule changes that took effect immediately.

These short-term measures are just the first steps, said Robert O’Reilly, deputy chief of the commission’s fishery-management division.

“Clearly, there’s a rebuilding effort needed,” he said. “That’s what the commission has already started: a rebuilding approach.”

The tightened rules include requiring escape hatches to remain open on crab pots to let smaller female crabs get free to spawn, and increasing the minimum size limit for peeler crabs. Peelers are crabs about to shed their shells. They are sold for eating as soft-shell crabs.

In addition, only one other person may be authorized to work a waterman’s crab pots, instead of the many previously allowed.

And the number of watermen permitted to dredge crabs from the Bay’s bottom as the crabs hibernate during winter was capped at 53.

At its April 22 meeting, the commission might shorten the winter dredge season from three months to one, or ban winter dredging entirely. The commission also will consider cutting the number of pots allowed per waterman by 10 percent to 30 percent.

Commission members are scheduled tomorrow to discuss and vote on a proposal intended to make more crabs available to start spawning in mid-May.

Currently, crabbing is not permitted within a spawning sanctuary area from June 1 through Sept. 15. The commission will consider closing that area as early as April 15.

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