- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 14, 2009

VIRGINIA BEACH | To ease pressures on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population, Virginia is paying watermen to stay out of the water, using $6.7 million in federal disaster aid to buy back crabbing licenses.

Many longtime crabbers won’t take the bait, though, preferring a backbreaking job with dwindling returns to no job at all.

“I like being outside, and I just absolutely love catching things — absolutely love it,” said waterman Joe Palmer, who works in drenching rain and searing sun to yank up traps laden with skittering blue crabs.

Mr. Palmer, 54, illustrates the challenge fisheries managers face in Virginia and Maryland as they attempt to thin a bloated fleet of watermen that harvests the sweet-flavored shellfish synonymous with the Bay. Veteran crabbers can’t imagine a divorce from a family business that dates back generations.

“They don’t want to give up something that’s been a way of life for them and their father and probably their grandfather,” said Jack Travelstead, a top fisheries manager in Virginia.

Like many fisheries around the world, the Chesapeake simply has too many people working the waters. Watermen today pick at the remnants of a crab population that has declined for nearly two decades because of overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat.

Virginia quit issuing commercial crabbing licenses about a decade ago. Still, the blue crab remains the Bay’s No. 1 catch, with annual dockside sales of $50 million to $80 million.

Regulators in Virginia and Maryland have shortened the crabbing season, created sanctuaries and ended a century-old practice of raking up pregnant hibernating crabs from the Bay’s bottom, which had a high kill rate.

The effort has reaped results: A winter census of the Bay’s crab population recorded the highest levels since 1993.

Now the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has set up the buyback program using a reverse auction, in which watermen set a price for the value of the license. Of 1,850 people with commercial licenses, more than 500 crabbers submitted offers to sell back their licenses by the Nov. 1 deadline with the commission.

The state will either accept or reject a bid, and it won’t buy gear, boats or motors. It will size up the offers over the next couple of weeks.

The buyback is bankrolled by a portion of the $20 million Virginia and Maryland shared after the federal government declared the crab fishery a disaster one year ago. Some of the money has put former crabbers to work pulling “ghost pots” — traps abandoned on the Bay’s bottom.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is to protect the fishery for the full-time crabber, the guy who’s in it for the long haul,” said Mr. Travelstead, chief of fisheries management for the commission. “He’s interested in keeping the resource conserved, as opposed to people who jump in and out of the fishery.”

As for Mr. Palmer, Mr. Travelstead said, “He’s the kind of crabber we like.”

Mr. Palmer works an 8-mile stretch of the west branch of the Lynnhaven River, a shallow tidal estuary where he tends 250 mesh traps. He’s not greedy, often tossing back traps with a couple of crabs still clinging to the mesh.

Mr. Palmer thinks the buyback is a great idea and briefly considered selling his license, but he figured his bid — $250,000 to $300,000 — would be too high.

What the Chesapeake buyback program doesn’t achieve, time may take care of. Most watermen are in their 50s, and some continue working well into their 60s and 70s.

“There are no young crabbers,” Mr. Palmer said. “I go to the watermen’s association meetings, and I’m one of the young guys.”

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