- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

BALTIMORE | Maryland and Virginia watermen are eligible for up to $20 million in crab-disaster relief, federal officials announced.

Each state will be eligible for as much as $10 million in relief to help watermen hurt by the failure of the Chesapeake Bay’s soft-shell and peeler blue-crab fishery, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

The two states must now submit plans outlining how the funds will be used.

Jim Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said Tuesday the agency was pleased governors from both states have said they would like to use the federal aid to restore habitat and “create more diverse economic opportunities for watermen, possibly in aquaculture.”

“We applaud their idea to use some aid to employ crab fishermen to retrieve lost or abandoned crab pots that continue to capture fish and crabs, doing long-term damage to the fishery,” Mr. Balsiger added.

Virginia and Maryland asked U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez for the declaration in May, saying the industry was in danger of collapse. NOAA issued the declaration in September for the soft-shell fishery, saying the harvest value of soft-shell and peeler blue crabs in Maryland and Virginia has declined 41 percent from the late 1990s. While crabs are harvested as hard- and soft-shell crabs, NOAA determined the soft-shell industry had suffered more.

Last month, members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia urged Mr. Gutierrez to immediately release $30 million in fishery-disaster assistance.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, said the announcement was great news. “This is about lives and livelihoods in a struggling economy,” Miss Mikulski said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said the blue crab is one of Maryland’s greatest symbols and the funds are critical for watermen and processors, particularly in tough economic times.

Last year, Virginia recorded a record-low harvest and Maryland had its lowest since 1945. In response, the two states have cut the female crab harvest more than one-third and shortened the season. Virginia has also banned winter crab dredging, which was already banned in Maryland.

Similar disaster declarations have been made twice in the past three years for the Chinook salmon fishery in the Pacific Northwest, where a salmon collapse prompted a total harvesting ban earlier this year. Chesapeake senators argued that the blue-crab fishery deserved similar aid.

In the Bay, the crabbing industry had continued to thrive long after overfishing and pollution had decimated oysters and rockfish, also known as striped bass, which rebounded after a moratorium was issued in the 1980s. But the two threats eventually took their toll on blue crabs as well.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said the funding “supports our commitment to keep Maryland watermen working and protect the viability of the many local businesses that rely on blue crabs, while giving the species time to rebuild.”

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