Crab panel is shut down

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The panel that spurred unprecedented cooperation between Maryland and Virginia to save the Chesapeake Bay blue crab will become extinct this week.

The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee - which pushed acceptance of a landmark 15 percent cut in the annual crab harvest - will hold its final meeting tomorrow. Then it will fall victim to budget shortfalls and fiscal politics in both states, potentially jeopardizing efforts to revive the bay's crab population.

"What has happened over the last seven or eight years has been very productive as far as the bay and the tributaries, as far as fishing and crabbing," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat and co-chairman of the blue crab panel.

"I think it will be harder for the states to cooperate now. My thinking is it was like having a watchdog over the Department of Natural Resources in both states. Now it just goes, and I'm not sure who is going to do it."

Although current regulations appear to have halted the decline in the crab population, other committee members said it will be difficult to persuade Maryland and Virginia to agree on additional measures.

"The committee has done some wonderful things and produced a very valuable strategy for recovery," said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "But this was merely a measure to pull us back from the brink, to provide a little margin of safety.

"What's needed now is a proactive strategy to look at the long term and try to turn that population around. I really think it would be impossible to achieve that if the two states aren't working together through this kind of formal committee."

The panel - which included lawmakers, conservationists, state fisheries experts, commercial watermen, seafood processors and recreational crabbers from both states - was created in 1996 by the Chesapeake Bay Commission to respond to growing concerns about the dwindling crab population.

Although it had no power to force rule changes on either state, it performed detailed analyses of the bay and tried to determine how to prevent a total collapse of the bay population.

Maryland and Virginia contributed $150,000 each over a two-year period to help the committee do its work, enabling it to direct its own research.

In December 2000, the group concluded that the blue crab spawning population had to be doubled, and it recommended that Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries reduce the annual crab harvest by 15 percent.

When both states signed on, it was considered remarkable for jurisdictions that tend to disagree - to the extent of taking a battle over ownership of the Potomac River to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Everybody walked slowly and deliberately to walk the same path," said Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "The end result was that very progressive regulations came down in all three jurisdictions."

The 15 percent reduction target has become a key figure in bay restoration efforts. In the spring, when the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed to cut the harvest by only 14.6 percent, pressure from lawmakers prompted him to drop that plan.

"It has become like a magic number," said Virginia Del. Robert S. Bloxom, committee co-chairman. "I believe that it has become so important that I can't see the states backing off on that. I'm an optimist, and I really believe they won't even though we won't have a formal structure any more."

Last year, Virginia's legislature was unable to pass a new budget, leaving the state unable to make its two-year, $200,000 contribution to keep the blue crab committee running. And Maryland wouldn't release its $200,000 unless Virginia put in its share.

Swanson said the Chesapeake Bay Commission kept the committee going for a year without the state's contributions, expecting Virginia and Maryland to come up with the money this year. But Virginia's budget again failed to include the money. That left the commission with little choice but to declare tomorrow's blue crab committee meeting the last.

"What we plan to do is to keep together our technical work group, 20-some scientists across the bay, and they will continue to share research," said Pat G. Stuntz, the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Maryland director. "But we used to be able to fund specific research, and we won't be able to do that any more."

The full Chesapeake Bay Commission - comprising lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania - will continue to hear occasional updates on the crab population, but without the same intensity as the crab panel, members say.

While lawmakers and officials in both states say they are committed to continuing the cooperation between Maryland and Virginia, it is not clear how successful they will be. Maryland's new Department of Natural Resources secretary has put together his own blue crab task force to come up with recommendations for Ehrlich's administration.

"I'm hopeful that at some point in the future we will have some joint bi-state effort again," said Michael Slattery, an assistant DNR secretary who is chairman of the Maryland task force. "So far, the secretary in Virginia has been very receptive to interaction with us, and I really do think that the prospects remain good."

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Goldsborough questioned whether Maryland and Virginia will agree to future restrictions, given their less-than-cooperative histories.

"I'm very dubious of the effectiveness of that kind of informal commitment to communicate," Goldsborough said. "A committee like this one is much more likely to hold states to a uniform and effective standard."

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