Crab Disaster – Blue Crab Fishery Gets Disaster Declaration

September 26, 2008

Federal officials announced a much sought-after disaster declaration for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery, making watermen eligible for funding to help them deal with severe harvest limits.

The disaster declaration was limited to the soft crab and peeler crab fisheries, but a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was up to Congress to determine how aid would be distributed.

Virginia and Maryland asked U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez for the declaration in May, saying the industry was in danger of collapse. Gutierrez determined Tuesday that a decline in the harvest of soft shell and peeler blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay was a commercial fishery failure, NOAA announced.

Mikulski called the declaration “great news for Maryland’s watermen,” but noted she was still working with other members of the state’s congressional delegation to secure the funding to support the declaration.

“We’re still fighting for the funding,” Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said. “First, we had to get the declaration.”

To deal with plunging crab numbers, the states have cut the female crab harvest more than a third and shortened the season. Virginia has also banned winter crab dredging, which was already banned in Maryland. Last year, Virginia recorded a record-low harvest and Maryland had its lowest since 1945.

Blue crabs are harvested as hard shell crabs; peeler crabs, or those about to molt; and soft-shell crabs, those that have just shed their shell. The harvest value of soft shell and peeler blue crabs in Maryland and Virginia, which are both sold as soft shell crabs, has declined by 41 percent from the late 1990s, NOAA said.

“The determination is based principally on the soft shell and peeler crabs because they showed the most dramatic decline over the last several years,” NOAA spokesman Anson Franklin said.

While not all watermen harvest soft shell and peeler crabs, Franklin said the determination establishes the scientific basis for the declaration, but “it’s up to Congress to determine how to provide the assistance.”

Similar disaster declarations have been made twice in the past three years for the Chinook salmon fishery in the Pacific Northwest, where a salmon collapse prompted a total harvesting ban earlier this year. Chesapeake senators argued that the blue crab fishery deserved similar aid.

Mikulski, D-Md., said in May that Maryland was seeking $15 million to put watermen to work on projects to restore the bay.

The funding would be spread over a three-year period to help keep watermen working on habitat restoration and conservation. Mikulski also said at the time that Maryland officials were hoping to obtain the disaster declaration by October, when watermen have to stop crabbing for the season.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the declaration “will provide needed resources to help Maryland watermen and seafood processors, and lead to improved management to help rejuvenate the blue crab population.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., added that the declaration will give watermen and other “the tools to move forward while we all work to revive the health of the Bay and the blue crab fishery.”

The restrictions come too late for many watermen who have found other ways to make a living on the Eastern Shore and in southern Maryland — where communities relied for years on commercial fishing.

Crabs thrived in the Chesapeake long after overfishing and pollution decimated oysters and rockfish, also known as striped bass, which rebounded after a moratorium was issued in the 1980s.

But the two threats eventually took their toll on blue crabs as well, with the stock now down about 65 percent since 1990, according to Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers. Authorities are hoping the restrictions will help crabs rebound.

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