Friday, March 1, 2024

Virginia Regulators Considering Fall Crabbing Season Extension

A crab being measured during the 2023 Bay-wide Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey. (Photo courtesy of Kenny Fletcher/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

HAMPTON — Virginia’s Crab Management Advisory Committee recommended earlier this month that regulators consider extending Virginia’s fall crabbing season and loosening catch limits, allowing crabbers to catch more of the crustaceans.

Currently, the fall crabbing season runs July 5 to Nov. 30, with lower catch limits imposed beginning Oct. 1. The advisory committee is suggesting the season be extended to Dec. 16 and the lower catch limits begin on Nov. 1.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission will take up the recommendation at its next meeting on Aug. 22. The VMRC can further restrict the season at its meeting but can’t extend it beyond what the crab management committee is proposing.

The recommendations are part of an ongoing discussion by the Crab Management Advisory Committee about whether the crabbing season should be open year-round. In support of the idea, members have pointed to data from VMRC showing the number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay increased from 227 million in 2022 to 323 million in 2023.

“The concern I have is we’ve never gone through the whole December,” said Pat Geer, head of fisheries management at VMRC, at the Aug. 3 meeting. “But if you want us to go forward with that, we can try to go forward with that.”

This month, VMRC Fishery Management Planner Alexa Galvan presented data to the committee showing that catches have increased this year compared to last but still are below the five-year average. This year has seen just under 2 million pounds of crabs harvested so far, compared to 1.5 million pounds over the same period in 2022. Between 2018 and 2022, an average of 2.5 million pounds were caught annually during that window.

Members of the committee have advocated for extending the season year-round by citing warmer water temperatures later in the year that allow them to go out and catch crabs later. Furthermore, they have argued, prior to the turn of the 21st century, crabbing regulations didn’t close the season down at all.

“We’re like a farmer,” said committee member Marshall Cox, who contended crabbers will know when to use their pots for catches or not. “We do it ourselves.”

But committee member Mark Stanford proposed a more “realistic” solution that would extend the season only a couple weeks to allow VMRC staff to look into the viability of a year-round season.

“When we start talking about the season we need to talk about when we can make money,” Stanford said.

Geer noted a federal disaster declaration was issued for the blue crab fishery in 2008. That led to conservation measures, including a ban on dredging, being put in place throughout the Bay. At the time, scientists found blue crabs had declined roughly 70% in the Chesapeake since the early 1990s.

“You were in trouble then,” he said.

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