NEWPORT NEWS — Despite objections from the seafood industry, Virginia regulators canceled the winter dredging of blue crabs for the fourth consecutive year.
The move, part of an effort to rebuild stocks of the Chesapeake Bay delicacy, will have little effect on the availability and price of crab cakes and other food.
But opponents argue it will leave dozens of watermen without steady work for months and further sour relations between the state’s second most lucrative commercial fishery and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
“Virginia needs the economics of this fishery,” said Ty Farrington, one of the 53 watermen involved in the century-old practice of using a steel-toothed basket to scoop up hibernating crabs. Critics say the dredges kill too many pregnant females.
The commission based its decision on a report issued in August that states at least 215 million adult female blue crabs are needed to ensure the fishery does not collapse. The previous target, established in 2008 amid sweeping regulations that angered the industry, had been 200 million adult crabs.
Having met the initial goal for three consecutive years, the industry hoped the commission would reopen the dredge season or loosen other restrictions. Joseph Palmer, an associate commissioner and waterman, said the industry believes the new target is unfair and ill-timed.
The comment drew a pointed response from Commissioner Steven Bowman, who said: “The rules changed because sometimes science changes.” He added that the new regulations should ensure the crab population remains stable enough to support the fishery.
Using $3.5 million from the federal government, the state paid out-of-work watermen the past three winters to retrieve lost crab pots that catch and kill crabs and other marine life. There is only enough money for a partial program this winter.
“These watermen have to go seek employment elsewhere over the winter time,” said Kim Huskey, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Seafood Council.
The decision not to reopen the dredge season was supported by numerous environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Chris Moore, a staff scientist at the foundation’s Norfolk office, said improved water quality will help boost crab numbers.
The commission also opted not to reinstate 320 crabbing licenses it suspended in 2008 due to inactivity.
Bryan Plumlee and Whitt Sessoms III, both associate commissioners, joined Palmer in trying to reinstate the licenses of 14 watermen who are active in other fisheries. They were overruled out of concerns the commission would be showing favoritism to select watermen.
The commission also re-established a blue crab sanctuary zone, which includes a large section of the middle of the bay that is off limits to crab harvesting.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun