Virginia fishery managers voted yesterday to expand an existing sanctuary for blue crabs, placing a 900-square-mile swath of the Chesapeake Bay off limits to all crabbing from June 1 to Sept. 15.
A spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said the enlarged sanctuary, which goes into effect Saturday, will allow 70 percent of all the bay's adult female crabs to live long enough to reproduce. It will also match Maryland fishery managers' decision to speed up their state's share of agreed-upon cutbacks in the two states' blue-crab harvests.
"We are making major strides," said commission spokesman Wilford Kale.
Scientists say the blue crab, the bay's most important commercial species, is being overfished. Worried that the fishery is in danger of collapsing, officials in Virginia and Maryland agreed in 2000 to reduce the harvest 15 percent by 2003.
In March, Maryland announced increases in the minimum catch sizes and other measures aimed at reaching the 15 percent goal this year. Kale said Virginia commissioners decided, on a 7-1 vote, to follow suit after crab ecologist Rom Lipcius said they could reach the goal by enlarging the sanctuary.
The lone dissenting vote came from a waterman, Kenneth Wayne Williams of Middlesex. But Kale said few crabbers protested the decision, and some supported it.
"The watermen really didn't want to continue to be hit every year," Kale said.
The sanctuary, established in 2000, originally included all of Virginia's bay waters 35 feet deep or more, covering about 660 square miles. The boundary will now move to the 30-foot-deep contour.
In summer, females that are developing eggs move down the bay to Virginia waters. Research shows most stay at depths of 30 feet or more, Kale said.
Because the expansion will reduce the catch of egg-bearing females, or "sponge crabs," the commission decided not to ban catching sponge crabs in the third week of July.
About 85 percent of crabs in Virginia waters are female, so that would have temporarily shut down the state's crab fishery, Kale said.
Maryland has long banned the harvest of sponge crabs, and this year banned their possession - idling the state's crab-picking houses for much of May, when they relied on out-of-state supplies.
Fishery managers here said one of their goals was to encourage Virginia to add more sponge-crab protections.