VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - To ease pressures on the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population, Virginia is paying watermen to stay out of the water, using $6.7 million in federal disaster aid to buy back crabbing licenses.
Many longtime crabbers won't take the bait, though, preferring a backbreaking job with dwindling returns to no job at all.
"I like being outside, and I just absolutely love catching things - absolutely love it," said waterman Joe Palmer, who works in drenching rain and searing sun to yank up traps laden with skittering blue crabs.
Palmer, 54, illustrates the challenge fisheries managers face in Virginia and Maryland as they attempt to thin a bloated fleet of watermen that harvests the sweet-flavored shellfish synonymous with the bay. Veteran crabbers can't imagine a divorce from a family business that dates back generations.
"They don't want to give up something that's been a way of life for them and their father and probably their grandfather," said Jack Travelstead, a top fisheries manager in Virginia.
Like many fisheries around the world, the Chesapeake simply has too many people working the waters. Watermen today pick at the remnants of a crab population that has declined for nearly two decades because of overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat.
Virginia quit issuing commercial crabbing licenses about a decade ago. Still, the blue crab remains the bay's No. 1 catch with annual dockside sales of $50 million to $80 million.
Regulators in Virginia and Maryland have shortened the crabbing season, created sanctuaries and ended a century-old practice of raking up pregnant hibernating crabs from the bay's bottom, which had a high kill rate.
The effort has reaped results: a winter census of the bay's crab population recorded the highest levels since 1993.
Now the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has set up the buyback program using a reverse auction, in which watermen set a price for the value of the license. Of 1,850 people with commercial licenses, more than 500 crabbers had submitted offers to sell back their licenses by the Nov. 1 deadline with the commission.
The state will either accept or reject a bid, and it won't buy gear, boats or motors. It will size up the offers over the next couple weeks.
The buyback is bankrolled by a portion of the $20 million Virginia and Maryland shared after the federal government declared the crab fishery a disaster one year ago. Some of the money has put former crabbers to work pulling "ghost pots" - traps abandoned on the bay's bottom.
Palmer thinks the buyback is a great idea and briefly considered selling his license but he figured his bid - $250,000 to $300,000 - would be too high.
Watermen's associations contend the buyback won't provide nearly enough to crabbers who've invested thousands in gear. In Maryland, a similar buyback aimed at part-time crabbers fell well short of the 2,000 licenses the state had hoped to purchase, finding just 500 takers.
The moribund economy likely left many watermen fearful of giving up whatever income they could scrape from the bay, said Douglas Lipton, a University of Maryland professor who helped craft that state's buyback.
"A lot of people are going to say, 'I can't get a job. The one thing I can do is go crabbing,"' he said.
License buyback programs have been successful in other threatened fisheries. In Alaska, the crab industry sharply reduced the number of vessels on the seas through a congressionally approved, $97 million buyback. Texas used a variety of funding sources in a buyback that sharply reduced the state's number of shrimpers.
What the Chesapeake buyback program doesn't achieve, time may take care of. Most watermen are in their 50s, and some continue working well into their 60s and 70s.
"There are no young crabbers," Palmer said. "I go the watermen's association meetings and I'm one of the young guys."