About a year ago, William E. Eldert III paid a waterman $3,000 for a license to set 170 crab pots in the Rappahannock River.
It was a profitable investment.
Earlier this month, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission bought the license — and hundreds more in a bid to boost the Chesapeake Bay's crab population — for $25,000.
But instead of quitting the crab business as the commission intended, Eldert plans to buy another license. With the going rate around $5,000, he'll likely have money left over to improve his boat.
Eldert is one of an undetermined number of crabbers who, despite recently selling their licenses to the commission, plan to remain in the business. Some will transfer a family member's license to their name. Others, such as Eldert, are scouring want ads and inquiring at marinas.
"There's guys around here who didn't sell theirs," the 75-year-old Morattico resident said. "I'll probably find one of those and keep crabbing."
In July, the commission agreed to a novel program intended to keep pressure off the crab population, which neared historic lows two years ago. It would spend $6.7 million in federal disaster aid to buy back some of the state's approximately 2,000 commercial crab licenses. It asked crabbers to submit non-negotiable bids stating how much money they would sell their license for.
The commission received 664 bids, and accepted 359. It paid as little as $500 and up to $175,000.
Values were determined by the number of pots and how many crabs the license holder caught during the past few years, said commission spokesman John M.R. Bull.
The buyback was a success, he said, because the licenses accounted for 75,441 crab pots, or about 18 percent of the state's commercial crab pots.
"Taking 75,000 crab pots off water is a significant improvement for the long-term viability of the blue crab," Bull said.
The buyback is one of several controversial regulations the commission adopted during the past two years to maintain stock of the iconic crustacean. The actions include a ban on winter dredging and a mandatory 15 percent reduction on all commercial crab pot licenses.
Like those endeavors, the buyback has drawn complaints, Bull said.
Some say the commission overstated the program's impact. For example, more than 44 percent — or 33,409 — of the 75,441 crab pots were already off the water. The pots and accompanying 169 licenses were suspended for inactivity last year by the commission.
Others say it amounts to a handout to watermen, some of whom will continue to crab. Among them is Leon McMann, a 78-year-old Tangier man who has worked on the water for more than six decades.
McMann sold two licenses to the commission for a combined $50,000. Yet he doesn't intend to stop crabbing. Come spring, he plans to transfer one of his grandson's licenses to his name.
Even so, Bull said, the buyback achieved its goal.
"Our program was geared at reducing licenses from circulation and reducing the number of crab pots on the water," he said. "The fewer licenses being used means the lesser amount of crabs being caught."
Retiring licenses also means fewer people will be able to jump into the business if the crab population continues its rebound. Last year stocks soared 49 percent.
Crabbers aren't so sure about the logic.
Longtime Gloucester waterman Richard Green said there are plenty of licenses that can be bought, especially considering the $6.7 million the commission doled out. He predicts the number of full-time crabbers will remain steady from last year, even though the commission bought 59 full-time licenses.
"I'm thinking there's going to be just as many people crabbing this year as there was last year," he said.
The commission's Blue Crab Management Advisory Committee has discussed blocking or limiting the transfer of licenses. It presently allows 100 transfers a year, Bull said.
The committee has yet to reach a consensus. Unless it does, expect to see McMann, Eldert and others on the water this spring.
About the buyback
The process: The Virginia Marine Resources Commission's one-time offer to buy back crab licenses.
Money spent: $6.7 million on 359 licenses, which is about 18 percent of the commercial industry.
The rub: The state paid $25,000 for a license that sold for $3,000 a year ago.
Copyright © 2009, Newport News, Va., Daily Press