The U.S. Commerce Department declared the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab fishery a federal disaster yesterday, marking the first time the industry has received the designation and making the state's watermen eligible for millions of dollars in aid.
Blue crab stocks in the bay have declined 70 percent since the early 1990s, according to state officials. The sharp decline prompted Maryland and Virginia to curb the harvest of female crabs by a third this year to bolster the bay's crab population - a move that is expected to significantly hurt watermen's ability to earn a living.
The disaster declaration does not guarantee money, however. Maryland's congressional delegation, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, head of a subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department's budget, pledged to include funding for assistance in budget bills now moving through Congress.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state officials estimated economic damages to the industry to be at least $15 million over three years, and the state has set aside $3 million for watermen's work programs.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the aid should be used to provide jobs to watermen that help restore the Chesapeake, such as the rehabilitation of oyster bars and bay grass restoration.
"They don't want a handout," Simns said of the watermen.
Last week, the Commerce Department declared a disaster for fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. The blue crab declaration, which applies to Maryland and Virginia, also means watermen are eligible for low-interest small-business loans, said Anson Franklin, an agency spokesman.
"Maryland's blue crab and the traditional fishing industry that it supports face difficult times," O'Malley said in a statement. "The federal funding accompanying the disaster designation will help to preserve the infrastructure of Maryland's hallmark blue crab fishery, and ensure an active fishery for the future."
O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats, have cooperated to rebuild the blue crab population. The beleaguered species has been hurt by a decline in water quality and an overabundance of predators, among other factors, leading to mounting economic losses to the crabbing industry.
The restrictions on female crab harvesting are expected to save as many as 26 million egg-bearing crabs and represent a chance to reverse their decline, said Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Schwaab's agency has been skeptical of other proposals for saving the crab, such as hatcheries to raise them.