- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

GLOUCESTER, Va. (AP) — More measures are needed to prevent an environmental breakdown in the crab population of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a pending report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The warning comes despite steady or slightly rising crab harvests in the Bay.

Rom Lipcius, a professor at the institute and the report’s senior author, said the recommendation is intended to raise concern before it’s too late.

“We don’t want to get to that point,” he said.

Poor environmental conditions and heavy fishing could leave the crab population more susceptible to disease and predators, enough to drop the bottom out of the crab population, Mr. Lipcius said.

A population collapse would devastate what is left of the Bay’s struggling crab industry.

The problem is that fewer female crabs are making it to the spawning grounds in the lower Bay. That could be the result of crabbing and fish predators eating the crabs, Mr. Lipcius said.

Virginia and Maryland have instituted several restrictions in recent years, including limiting crabbers to 8-hour workdays and prohibiting them from catching male crabs under a certain size and from harvesting in a 927-square-mile sanctuary in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

“The regulations were supposed to double the spawning stock,” Mr. Lipcius told the Daily Press of Newport News. “The spawning stock has not doubled.”

Mr. Lipcius said his findings may sound contrary to the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, a group of state and federal researchers under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who use several surveys to rate the status of the Bay’s population.

The committee’s research shows the crab population leveling off. But Mr. Lipcius’ report points out that the spawning stock — the number of mature females in the Bay’s spawning grounds — has declined about 80 percent since 1992.

Mr. Lipcius advocates spatial-management areas — temporary, shifting zones in the Bay and tributaries that would be off-limits to fishing while crabs grow to maturity and migrate out to the Bay. Such restrictions would complement additional measures that limit catch.

The state agency that regulates fishing, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, is waiting for a committee of Maryland and Virginia researchers to come out with a report on the crab stock early next year, said Jack Travelstead, state fisheries chief.

“It will be the first new stock assessment on blue crabs in 10 years,” said Mr. Travelstead. “We aren’t in a situation where blue crabs are going to become extinct in the Bay — we’re nowhere near that situation. There is some threat of collapse, but I don’t see it as imminent.”

Virginia crab harvest numbers through September show a 17 percent increase — 21 million pounds — compared to the like period last year, Mr. Travelstead said.

The agency’s staff has recommended spatial-management areas twice in the past, but the commission voted the proposals down after hearing strong opposition from the commercial fishing industry.

“I’m not sure it’s something the commission will show a lot of interest in, although it depends on what the stock assessment says,” Mr. Travelstead said.

Pete Nixon, a crabber who is president of the Lower Chesapeake Watermen’s Association, said he hasn’t seen the decline in the spawning stock that Mr. Lipcius reports.

“There’s been more females around the last couple years than I’ve seen before,” he said.

Mr. Nixon said management zones will just force watermen to pick up their gear and crowd into concentrated areas where crabbing is allowed.

“You’re going to solve a problem in one place,” he said, “and exacerbate it in other places.”

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