- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

RICHMOND | Virginia regulators approved a $6.7 million program Tuesday to buy the licenses of watermen and ease pressures on the Chesapeake Bay’s distressed blue crab population.

The action by a 7-0 vote of the Marine Resources Commission reflects escalating efforts by Virginia and Maryland to preserve the Bay’s distinctive catch, which has shown tentative signs of recovery.

Earlier this month, Maryland instituted a similar buyback program to thin the ranks of 3,676 commercial catcher licenses, and both states have enacted stricter limits on watermen pursuing their catch.

Under the Virginia initiative, the state would use federal money designated for crab protections to buy back licenses, which are valued into the thousands of dollars based on the number of crab pots of a watermen.

The commission would consider each bid and decide whether to accept it. The so-called reverse auction would not involve negotiations, said John M.R. Bull, the commission’s spokesman.

The program is aimed at luring Virginia’s best crabbers off the Bay.

“We’re looking at this as a way to help the crabs,” Mr. Bull said. “If that means we’re taking a license out of circulation that has been used successfully, that’s a benefit to the crab population.”

The program was met with skepticism among watermen.

Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen’s Association, said a full-time crabber who is good at what he or she does is likely to ask $200,000 to $300,000 for his or her license.

“The only people who are going to put their licenses up for sale are not serious crabbers anyway,” he said.

Peter Nixon, a waterman since 1969, put 300 pots out this season around Norfolk and estimated his license would have to fetch $500,000, based on how much longer he plans to work the waters.

“I think it’s a waste of money,” said Mr. Nixon, vice president of the Virginia Seafood Council. “This buyback is going to do nothing.”

Mr. Bull stressed, however, that the buyback isn’t intended as a golden parachute.

“This is a nudge, a little bit of a sweetener if someone is wanting to get out of the industry,” he said.

Virginia has about 2,000 licensed watermen, with about half that number actively crabbing. The state already has suspended 500 dormant licenses held by watermen who haven’t reported a catch in years.

Crab stocks are estimated to have declined 70 percent in the Chesapeake since the early 1990s because of overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department declared the crab fishery a federal disaster.

In Virginia, the commission has shortened the season and ended the winter dredge, a century-old practice that rakes up pregnant hibernating crabs and has a high kill rate, among other measures.

They have reaped results: A winter census of the Bay’s crab population recorded the highest levels since 1993.

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