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Virginia votes to reopen winter crab dredge season

Photo courtesy - Shutterstock
Photo courtesy - Shutterstock

This story was reported and written by our media partner the Virginia Mercury.

For the first time in 15 years, Virginia will reopen its winter crab dredging season, despite opposing recommendations from state staff and environmental groups wanting to protect the species.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 5-4 to repeal the regulation that has been in place since 2008 prohibiting the winter season. Commissioner Jamie Green cast the tie-breaking vote.

“It is a tie, the chair votes to repeal the regulation,” said Green, without making further comment about his vote.

Commissioners Spencer Headley, Lynn Kellum, AJ Erskine and James Minor voted in favor of repealing the prohibition. Commissioners Will Bransom, Heather Lusk, Patrick Hand and Jeanette Edwards voted against the repeal.

“Opening this fishery in the winter would be for the benefit of a very few and come at a high risk, in my opinion, to all crabbers,” said Bransom.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz said in a statement the decision was a “bad day if you care about blue crabs.”

“The Virginia Commission’s unilateral decision will impact the species at a time when Marylanders are regularly sitting down to pick crabs with their friends and families,” Kurtz said. “A decision of this magnitude should have only been made with the support of scientists, in close consultation with Maryland officials, and in response to a significant increase in the blue crab population.”

VMRC’s Crab Management Advisory Committee last month recommended reopening the season, after reviewing results of the winter crab dredging survey, which catches crabs in between seasons to assess how many of the crustaceans may be in the Chesapeake Bay.

The latest survey found that there were about 317 million crabs — about 2% less than the previous year — with decreases in adult females and males and increases in juveniles. Females, which are needed to continue spawning crabs in the rest of the Bay, are primarily present in the lower portions that are within Virginia’s border.

The survey results were presented with 2023 harvest data that reported about 18.5 million pounds were caught, a 13% increase from the year before, with a dockside value of about $41 million, about a 31% increase from the prior year. The crabs’ higher value in the winter season,open during the same months in other states, was one reason to continue the market that members of CMAC pointed to last month.

A winter dredging crabbing season uses a method similar to the survey that scrapes chains across the bottom of the Bay to pick up the crustaceans, but allows the fishers to keep them.

In 2000, a Winter Crab Dredge Fishery Task Force found that the winter crabbing dredge season had caught 32% of the females in the Bay at the start of the season, with upwards of 96% of the catches being female, explained VMRC Chief of Fisheries Management Pat Geer, on Tuesday. The winter crabbing dredge season had been closed since 2008 following record lows, which prompted Virginia, Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the regional groups overseeing catches in the Bay, to reduce their harvest limits by 34%.

Closing the winter dredge season accounted for 17% of Virginia’s reduction, Geer said. Following the closure the number of females rocketed, from less than 100 million in 2008 to 250 million in 2010 before plummeting in 2011 because of colder seasons. The numbers have returned to more normal fluctuations, on a downward trend, since then.

On Tuesday, VMRC staff, including Geer, recommended keeping the winter dredge season closed because of an ongoing stock assessment to better understand what is happening with the species. The stock assessment, which is expected to be completed in 2026, could be skewed by reopening the winter season.

“Something’s happened in the last 10 years that we have to find out what is going on,” said Geer. “Is it blue cat[fish] predation, is it weather?”

Chris Moore, Virginia executive director with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, spoke on behalf of the Friends of the Rappahannock River and the James River Association, cautioning against undoing regional cooperation to increase crab numbers.

“A lot of that 2008 work was the first time Maryland and Virginia and Potomac River Fisheries Commission had ever worked together to really manage this,” said Moore. “We need to maintain that precautionary Bay-wide approach.”

David O’Brien, a fisheries biologist with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, spoke against the proposal during the public comment period, citing the work his agency is doing to place dredged material over wintering crabs to conserve the species.

Prior to the meeting, VMRC received about 180 comments against reopening the season, with none in support, Geer said.

But commissioners in favor of repealing the prohibition spoke in support of opening the season to see what the impact will be.

“It concerns me that we continue to rubber stamp just a ‘we’re going to close the winter dredge fishery,’” said Erskine. “That’s what it seems to have been for a number of years.”

Nathan Reynolds, a member of CMAC who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, said “if we don’t do it, we don’t know enough about it.”

Green noted during the meeting that of the 73 fishermen who made about 1,500 trips during the last winter crab dredging season, “probably half of them are no longer with us.”

Following the repeal, board members had some discussion on what to do next, since there are no actual regulations in place to manage the winter crab dredge fishery.

CMAC had previously suggested a 1.5 million pound cap. Headley, on Tuesday, suggested limiting the number of crabbing licenses to 20 or 25 and have the season run from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28.

But VMRC counsel with the Office of the Attorney General told the board to not vote on any explicit provisions of the regulations Tuesday, in order to let staff create specific language that will be published, released for public comment and then, as expected, brought back before the full VMRC board in September.

The world changes fast.

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