Tamara Dietrich for Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) 6 months ago

State ponders reopening winter crab dredge fishery

It's been a horrible year for Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, which plunged to less than half their overall population in the past year, and the state is set to decide Tuesday what to do about it.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is expected to vote in a public hearing at its offices in Newport News on whether to reopen the winter dredge season for blue crab, close it for the sixth year in a row to help the stock rebuild, or allow dredging with strict limits and oversight.

"If it is reopened, it will not be anything like what it used to look like," VMRC spokesman John Bull said Monday. "This plan would have tight controls."

But environmentalists say tight controls aren't enough to help salvage the bay's dwindling supply of its iconic blue crabs.

Stock surveys conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and others indicate the overall abundance of blue crabs dropped from 765 million last year to about 300 million this year, said Chris Moore, Hampton Roads senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. As a result, commercial watermen saw a "very poor" harvest this year.

The current blue crab population is only slightly better than the 298 million recorded in 2008, which was deemed a federal disaster and prompted alarmed officials in Virginia and Maryland to partner in a science-based stock management plan. Virginia began banning winter dredging that year.

The greatest drop in the 2013 winter survey was in the number of juvenile crabs, which shriveled to about 20 percent of last winter's numbers, from 581 million to 111 million.

Experts blame bad water quality, a possible migratory shift caused by changing winds and currents, and the loss of oyster reefs and eelgrass that provide crucial blue crab habitat and protection from predators.

They also note a population boom in predator fish, such as rockfish and puppy drum, which feast on baby crabs. Bull said Virginia catch-and-release anglers reported catching 28,000 puppy drum three years ago and 61,000 two years ago. Then last year they reported catching an astonishing 2.5 million puppy drum. Maryland anglers reported similar increases, he said.

In one bright spot, science surveys did show an uptick in the number of spawning female blue crabs, which numbered about 95 million two years ago and 147 million last year.

But that number still falls far short of the 215 million spawning females that stock assessors consider a stable population.

Dredges are heavy, metal, rake-like devices dragged along the water bottom to scrape up blue crabs, a method found to be highly destructive to the creatures, especially when used on hard water bottom.

The method has been banned in Maryland for many years, but in Virginia it must by law be reconsidered annually.

The Coastal Conservation Association Virginia announced it "strongly supports" continuing the closure, calling dredging the "most inefficient and destructive form of marine harvesting in the entire mid-Atlantic region."

CBF says it supports reopening the dredge fishery if it's done in a "sound manner" and under strict conditions, but only when the stock has reached a sustainable level -- a so-called population trigger.

"At this time, however, because of the low abundance of blue crabs overall," said Moore, "and we're still significantly below the target for adult female crabs, now's not the appropriate time to reopen the fishery."

Adult females winter in the lower bay, while males prefer the low-salinity upper bay and its tributaries. Winter dredging, then, typically harvests 90 percent to 95 percent spawning females.

According to Bull, if winter dredging is re-opened, it would be limited to designated areas that have a mud bottom, which are less vulnerable to raking, and to fewer than 50 dredgers. The overall blue crab harvest would be capped, which would mean decreasing the allowable crab pot harvest to offset the renewed dredge harvest. The crab pot season generally runs from mid-March through November.

The fishery would be heavily controlled and enforced, Bull said, with identification numbers painted on the roofs of vessels so their activities and whereabouts can be monitored by air.

VMRC has been taking public comment on the dredge fishery for months, he said, and sent a survey to 1,500 crab harvesters. Some 452 were returned.

Of those who responded to the question about reopening the winter dredge season, said Bull, 54 percent opposed reopening it.

Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892. ___

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