The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) voted 5-4 in June to repeal a ban on winter crab dredging and consider a limited entry fishery. Before officially opening a new  dredge season, the commission will begin research on the future of the fishery.

The decision came on the heels of Virginia’s Crab Management Advisory Committee (CMAC)  vote 10-2 in May to recommend the fishery be reopened, with a 1.5 million pounds harvest cap.

Since the winter dredging was banned in 2008, commercial fishing lobbies have been working to bring the dredge fishery back. Those advocates say dredging provides another fishery, besides oystering, in the winter for watermen; extends the bay’s commercial winter picked-crab market to compete with surrounding states that allow winter dredging; and that the winter harvest has limited impact on the overall bay crab population.

The 2008 ban was sparked in part by disturbing bay-wide crab survey results that showed in 2007 there were 251 million crabs in the bay, which was a drop from an 852 million high in 1993.

 Even more disturbing was that there were consistently low population figures from 1998 to 2007. The bay’s 2024 crab population estimate is 317 million crabs, less than the 323 million estimate in 2023.

Virginia’s decision to consider reopening the fishery sparked concerns from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that issued a statement saying it “strongly disagrees with Virginia’s decision.”

 “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,” Maryland DNR secretary Josh 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. It’s a bad day if you care about blue crabs. We are reviewing our options to ensure the sustainability of the blue crab fishery,” says Kurtz.

In a VMRC media release, commission officials said that lifting the ban allows the state to “assess the viability of reintroducing a controlled and regular year-round crab fishery, potentially including potting, dredging and other gear types.”

VMRC staff recommended against repealing the ban stating that “allowing watermen to harvest crabs in the winter would upend an ongoing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) species stock assessment, which is set for completion in 2026.” The last blue crab stock assessment in Chesapeake Bay was done in 2011 by NOAA.

The VMRC plans to meet again in September to discuss and vote on regulations.

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Larry Chowning is a writer for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., a regular contributor to National Fisherman, and the author of numerous books.

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