One-third of Virginia's watermen have offered to sell their licenses back to the state under a buyback program intended to ease pressure on the Chesapeake Bay crab.
The bids, however, far exceed the $6.7 million in federal disaster aid bankrolling the buyback, meaning only a fraction of the watermen who bid will likely be leaving the water.
The 665 bids received by a Nov. 1 deadline totaled $30.4 million, ranging from a low of $500 to a high of $665,000, which was submitted by a part-time waterman. Virginia has approximately 1,800 licensed watermen, most of whom are part-time. Many others rarely go out on the water.
Over the next few weeks, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission will sort the bids with an eye on retiring the most productive watermen. Virginia stopped issuing crabbing licenses a decade ago because of a steady decline in the shellfish.
"We're going to be looking to get the biggest bang for the buck that we can," said John M.R. Bull, spokesman for the commission, who released the bid results Friday. "We're going to be looking at this from the perspective of what's best for the crabs."
Some watermen have scoffed at the idea that the best among them will sell their licenses, and some are holding on and hopeful the crab fishery will again be abundant.
Of the bids received, about 75 were from full-time watermen, according to figures supplied by Bull. More than half were part-time or on a wait list.
The bids were received under a voluntary reverse auction in which watermen were invited to submit bids to the state on what they deemed the value of their license. The state has said it will not negotiate bids.
Chesapeake Bay crab stocks have declined 70 percent since the early 1990s because of overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. The U.S. Commerce Department declared the crab fishery a federal disaster.
Virginia and Maryland have enacted measures intended to encourage the crab population to return to historic highs. They have included shortened seasons for watermen and creation of a vast sanctuary.
Maryland has also attempted to thin its ranks of crabbers through a license buyback. In late October, the state retired more than 530 licenses. Many of Maryland's 6,000 licenses are not actively used.
Fisheries experts have increasingly looked to watermen to ease pressures on the bay's crab as its population slowly rebounds. Part of that tack is to get a better handle on an industry that can lie dormant for years but send a fleet of small boats to the bay during peak periods.
"One of the real concerns is that if we begin to see an increase in the population, all of those licenses would become active and all our attempts at regulating the fishery would really go down the tubes," said Rom Lipcius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
The crabbing season ends at the end of this month.