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Virginia crab management committee requests opening winter season for dredging

A crab being measured during the 2023 Bay-wide Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey.

Posted on June 5, 2024

The 2024 Bay-wide Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey revealed last week shows the crustaceans are still below desired population levels, as the state’s Marine Resources Commission considers a request to maintain the same crabbing regulations in Virginia and opening a winter dredge season.

The VMRC Crab Management Advisory Committee voted last Wednesday afternoon to have the larger body consider allowing catches past December at its June meeting.

Currently, crabbing is only allowed between March through the middle of December in Virginia. The state had a winter dredging season up until 2008, when it was closed down following population lows that necessitated an emergency declaration.

“We had been talking about it, trying to get it open…for January and February, and have a poundage cap on it, like 1.5 million [pounds],” said committee member Spencer Headley, who made the motion to extend the dredging season at last week’s meeting.. “And 1.5 million pounds would not hurt their overall population.”

But Chris Moore, Virginia executive director of the non-profit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the state “had a long way” to go before considering all the implications of opening that option again.

“We’re coming out of a year where we’re two years removed from the lowest winter dredge survey we’ve ever had,” Moore said. “I don’t think we would be on solid footing.”

The debate to reopen the winter fishery is focused around the increased value of crabs in those months, when there are fewer watermen pulling them in and other states like North and South Carolina allow fishermen to catch the blue crabs.

“The value is there,” said James Hudgins, president of the Virginia Waterman’s Association, in an interview with the Mercury while adding he was in support of the winter fishery for a limited number of boats, like 15 to 20. “You’re looking at double the amount of money.”

But the debate also includes the catch controls environmental advocates want put in place following the winter survey results that counted 133 million females, about 60 million below desired targets.

About 28% of the female crabs in the population were caught in 2023, comprising what is known as the exploitation rate. Virginia has some leeway to allow more catches before a 37% exploitation rate is met and mandates conservation measures, Hudgins said.

The winter dredge survey uses the same dredging technique to pull the crabs up from the bottom for research purposes, but releases them to the water. This year’s dredge research survey found that the crab population had decreased from the previous year’s abundance of 323 million to 317 million, a 2% decrease.

The long-term average for all crabs since the start of the survey is about 407 million, with the adult average being about 182 million.

Specifically, females — which are crucial to maintain because of their ability to continue producing offspring — were down from 152 million to 133 million, still below the target of 196 million. Males were also down from 55 million to 46 million. Juveniles showed a 16% increase to 138 million, but were still below an average of 207 million since the surveying began in 1900.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission said in a news release that the adult female crab population was “continuing to surpass” average levels for the second year in a row but didn’t point out the other variations in numbers.

Calling the results a “positive trend,” VMRC’s release highlighted the importance of closely monitoring and managing the adult female crabs. Commissioner Jamie Green said the state’s license-specific catch limits are important.

“This provides Virginia the flexibility to reduce regulatory burdens that would economically benefit the industry while maintaining the long-term conservation goals of the joint Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions,” Greene said.

The Bay Foundation took a more measured tone on the results, noting the decline from last year and advocating for seagrass habitat improvement like water-filtering oysters and natural shoreline implementation “in order to help ensure better numbers in the future.”

Predation, particularly from catfish, can harm the species, too, but Alexa Galvan, VMRC fishery management planner, noted that the state has made efforts to expand the invasive catfish market and processing. A report from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee is expected to be completed in 2026 with information on predatory impacts on crabs, and how climate change, rising sea levels and warming water temps affect the animals.

“I think climate change is affecting all the seafood,” Hudgins said, referencing the warmer temps’ impact on their habitat.

VMRC staff didn’t share specific information on how extensions made last year impacted the harvest for the 2023 season that started in July and saw 18.5 million pounds caught, a 13% increase from 2022, completed by 772 harvesters on 48,300 trips, a 5% increase.

That led to a $41 million dockside value for catches, which, adjusted for inflation,  was a 31% increase from the previous year. About 8% of harvests are estimated to come from recreational fishers, who are not allowed to use more than two pots at a time and aren’t required to report their catches.

As part of a regional effort with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia is committed to maintaining the “status quo” on catch limit regulations. Therefore, if the winter dredge season were to result in 1.5 million pounds caught, that much would have to be reduced from what could be caught during the regular fishing seasons.


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