Virginia regulators reopen blue crab winter dredge fishery

A pile of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has repealed a 15-year-long ban on winter crab dredging | Photo courtesy of Linda Hughes Photography/Shutterstock
4 Min

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) has, in a 5-4 vote, repealed a 15-year ban on winter dredging for blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay and began considering a limited-entry fishery. 

The decision came on the heels of a 10-2 vote by Virginia’s Crab Management Advisory Committee (CMAC) that recommended the fishery be reopened, with a 1.5-million-pound harvest cap. Before officially opening a new dredge season, the commission will begin research on the future of the fishery.

Winter dredging for blue crab was banned in 2008, and ever since, commercial fishing lobbyists 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 bay-wide crab survey results in 2007 that showed there were 251 million crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, a drop from an 852 million high in 1993. The surveys also showed consistently low population figures from 1998 to 2007. The 2024 crab population estimate for the bay is 317 million crabs, down from the 323 million estimate in 2023.

Virginia’s decision to consider reopening the fishery sparked concerns from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which 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.”

Environmental groups also opposed the decision. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the winter dredge will put blue crabs in the bay at risk.

“The VMRC’s decision to reopen the winter crab season this year puts the prospect of a healthy blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay in jeopardy,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Executive Director Chris Moore said in a statement.

In a VMRC media release, commission officials said 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, however, had 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 performed in 2011 by NOAA.

The VMRC said it plans to meet again in September to discuss and vote on regulations for the fishery.  

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