Roosevelts' CCC in 2009?
By LAWRENCE LATANE III
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
The state is considering offering jobs to watermen who will be hardest hit by new fishing restrictions expected to be passed Tuesday to preserve the economically important blue crab.
Officials in the Department of Natural Resources and Virginia Marine Resources Commission have been quietly discussing the idea for the past several days as the scope of the restrictions becomes clear.
If a jobs program is created, it would be the first time Virginia has provided work for watermen to mitigate the effects of a fishery regulation. Any plan would likely be aimed at watermen on Tangier Island, who depend greatly on the blue crab harvest. State-sponsored work might include building and replenishing the bay's depleted oyster reefs.
Legal and budgetary considerations could block a works plan, but "we have a responsibility to those hurt" by the regulations, said Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant Jr.
"This is going down the road to compensating someone for the state's action," Bryant said. "That has its plusses and its minuses. It's really kind of a gray policy area."
Key measures expected to be passed would drastically curtail the amount of time that Tangier watermen and other crabbers can spend on the water.
VMRC's staff is recommending closing the Dec. 1 to March 31 crab-dredging season entirely and ending the March 17 to Nov. 30 crab-potting season a month early.
VMRC meets Tuesday in Newport News to decide.
Regulators hope new restrictions will rebuild the crab population and allow for bigger catches in two or three years.
Crabs remain the single greatest resource available to bay watermen. The catch supported a $125 million crabbing industry in Virginia and Maryland last year.
Scientists from both states have determined that the bay's crab population has been overfished seven out of the past 10 years. Estimates place the bay's crab population this past winter at 120 million crabs, a 70 percent drop since the early 1990s.
Catches and the number of working watermen are also falling. Last year, about 1,500 people in Virginia held commercial licenses to harvest crabs and landed 19.3 million pounds, according to VMRC spokesman John Bull.
In 1990, before the crab population began to shrink, 3,045 harvesters were licensed and caught 52 million pounds.
Crabbers anticipate pain in their wallets
As drastic crab-harvest cuts loom, Virginia watermen consider seeking state compensation.
By PATRICK LYNCH, Daily Press April 19, 2008
Like almost every graph that charts the "progress" in the imperiled Chesapeake Bay, there's no question what's happening to the number of Virginia watermen: It's trending down.
More than 3,000 licensed crabbers took to the water in 1990, when their boats hauled in 52 million pounds of crabs. Last year saw only 1,530 licensed watermen in the state. And even in a year when six out of 10 adult blue crabs was plucked from the Chesapeake and sent to market, the state's catch was 19 million pounds, one of the smallest ever.
Watermen are only a few weeks into the 2008 season, and the financial future of the job looks as shaky as ever. As they await a raft of new regulations which will be set on Tuesday, they are also putting pencil to paper to figure out what deep harvest cuts might cost them, and entertaining the idea of state compensation to make up for the burden of these new rules.
For those who still ply the traditional trade of coastal, tidewater towns, a mandate to catch 34 percent fewer female crabs this year looks a lot like another hit to the pocketbook. Especially in Virginia, where females made up 61 percent of the total catch last year. The new formula would roughly equal a one-sixth hit to the average waterman's crab harvest.
The top-down mandate — from the governors of Virginia and Maryland this week — to slash the harvest in order to save the struggling species has prompted the idea that watermen deserve some sort of financial compensation for having the rug pulled out from under them. At the same time, many watermen scoffed at the thought of taking "welfare."
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley first broached the compensation idea with members of the seafood industry in his state, and it has trickled down the bay to Virginia.
Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant said this week that the concept is at least on the table, but there are no guarantees anything will come through. U.S. 1st District Rep. Rob Wittman wrote Gov. Timothy M. Kaine this week imploring the state to find aid for watermen.
Some watermen have made the analogy to subsidies paid to the small, American family farm. Peanut and tobacco farmers, who worked in a federal quota system for decades, were given annual payouts when Congress killed those programs.
The idea does not translate exactly. But O'Malley and Bryant both said that if anything was done, it would be along the lines of finding bay restoration work or other on-the-water jobs that the state could pay watermen to do.
"We're looking at it," Bryant said. "We want them to be doing something on the water. We don't want to be spending money for the sake of spending money."
Bryant also noted that Virginia's budget season is wrapped up, and that it was a tight year. "We can make no promises right now," he said.
Doug E. Jenkins, of Warsaw on the Northern Neck, is president of the Twin Rivers Watermen's Association and a frequent spokesman for watermen's concerns.
Jenkins said the analogy to tobacco farmers is a good one, but also that helping out the Chesapeake's seafood industry should take even higher priority than farmers whose crops can be grown in many places. "We only have one Chesapeake Bay, and it should be a priority," he said. "All these new regulations will be a hardship."
From his office on the Pagan River in Isle of Wight County Joe Melzer Jr. said he is not as keen on the idea. Melzer owns Dockside Seafood. His father worked the water and his son also still works the water.
"I don't need nobody to give me no money," he said. "I feel like all the watermen can go out there and make a living unless they do something like eliminate the fishery."
Of course, that is exactly what might happen with Virginia's long-controversial winter dredge industry, where boats rake the muddy bottom for hibernating, pregnant females. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is considering ending it altogether.
Melzer, who does not dredge, said dredging should be banned for the good of the species. But he also said that's the one instance where a government payout would make sense. There are only 55 boats still dredging in the winter, but they have a lot invested and that part of the livelihood would be gone forever.
"The guys ought to be paid if they've been in the fishery for the last five years and they have the paperwork to prove it," he said.
Pete Nixon, a Norfolk crabber, member of VMRC's crab committee and a former dredger, agreed with Melzer on both counts: The dredgers might deserve something if their industry is outlawed, but no one else.
"The first thing is, I'm a very conservative thinker. I don't want anything from the government," Nixon said. "But the more I got to thinking about it, if they're going to arbitrarily shut down this dredge industry, maybe they should buy those guys out. The crab potters are a different story."
As for the rest of the season, Melzer said the diminished supply due to the harvest cuts could drive up bushel prices to ease some of the watermen's financial pain. He said he's paying $65 a bushel right now, a high price even for early spring, when prices are typically higher. But he thinks the price could stay above $50 a bushel through the summer, when it usually drops to $25 or $30.
Nixon said a supply-driven price increase could help to a degree, but he questioned how much consumers would tolerate the rising price tag.
"You run into market resistance," he said. "You get your product up to a certain point and people say, 'The hell with that, I'm going to go buy a pork chop.'"
Wittman Seeks Aid for Bay Watermen
By David Lerman, Daily Press, April 19, 2008
WASHINGTON - Virginia Rep. Robert Wittman is seeking state aid for Chesapeake Bay watermen who could be hurt by plans to restrict the harvesting of blue crabs.
In a letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the congressman calls on state agencies to provide assistance to watermen and businesses that could suffer from harvest restrictions. He also calls on Kaine to declare a state of emergency and to petition the U.S. Department of Commerce for fishery disaster assistance.
The move comes days after Kaine stood on the banks of the Potomac River with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and announced they had instructed state regulators to reduce the amount of female blue crabs caught this year by 34 percent. The blue crab's population in the bay has fallen about two-thirds since the early 1990's and part of the decline has been attributed to overfishing.
Watermen have said such dramatic restrictions in harvesting could make it difficult to stay in business.
The scientific evidence clearly points to a blue crab population in danger and necessitates a collaborative approach to ensure the long-term viability of this vitally important species," wrote Wittman, a first-term congressman from the Northern Neck who previously worked for Virginia's Division of Shellfish Sanitation.
“However, I am concerned about the disproporationate burden watermen will surely face through heightened restrictions in order to restore the blue crab," Wittman wrote.
Kaine, in his announcement Tuesday, acknowledged the burden the new restrictions could place on watermen but defended the action as necessary.
“The price of inaction is greater than the price of action," Kaine was quoted as saying. ``We do not want to wake up in five or 10 years and realize we've lost this very important part of who we are."
In 1990 there were no pot limits for crabbing, and there was no requirement for a waterman's card. There were also a lot of folks that would buy a crab license so that they could run 10 pots for personal use.
By all accounts there were also less pots in the water.
In no way, shape or form should any waterman be compensated for any regulations passed. When you harvest a public resource for profit your always at the mercy of the public when they decide enough is enough.
Lets see... A farmer that buys land, works the soil, plants a crop, waters crop, fertilizes crop, harvests crop and brings crop to market for sale compared to a waterman that does nothing but harvests a crop that isn't even owned by him. No comparasion at all. The two shouldn't even be mentioned in the same paragraph they are so far apart.
Rob, I think you are old enough to remember the CCC days.