Virginia is paying for a scientific study to determine how harmful dredging for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay may be to the ecosystem and crab population.
State regulators have a moratorium on winter dredging because they contend that it protects hibernating females and allows the next generation of crabs to be born in the spring. But watermen want it lifted, saying the harmful effects of dredging have long been exaggerated.
Watermen say sportsfishing and environmental groups have unfairly painted their industry as harmful, and they contend the study will shed scientific light on dredging.
"You have mortality rates with any fishery," waterman James Dean Close said. "Ours has been totally exaggerated by these special-interest groups."
The Virginian-Pilot reports that state regulators have pledged more than $130,000 toward the study.
The study will be overseen by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. It will pay four watermen to dredge as many as 40 bushes of crabs a day that they can sell for a profit. Among others things, officials and regulators on board the boats want to see how the dredges tear up mud, sand and underwater grasses and whether the dredges maim crabs.
"Everyone has an opinion of the winter dredge fishery, but we need facts, not opinions," said John Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "Let's do our homework before we make any future decisions."
The study begins in December and will run through March.
Maryland, which has long urged Virginia to stop winter dredging, is concerned about the pending study.
"We remain concerned about the potential re-opening of the winter dredge fishery, and would be interested in reviewing and discussing the results of this winter's dredge fishery with you," wrote Tom O'Connell, Maryland's director of fisheries, in a letter last week.
The money for the study is coming out of funds paid by watermen for their commercial fishing licenses.